Peering Into the Storm


In July 1943, as World War II raged in Europe and Asia, a Category 2 hurricane formed in the Gulf of Mexico and barrelled toward Houston, Texas. British pilots were at Bryan Field for training exercises that summer. When the Americans decided to evacuate the planes from the field, fearing the oncoming storm, the British decided to take the opportunity to rib their allies. Were the aircraft not robust enough to withstand a hurricane?

Colonel Joe Duckworth decided to test the planes; he bet the British he could fly into the hurricane and return. Duckworth enlisted Lt. Colonel Ralph O’Hair to join him. The pair knew they would not receive permission to take the mission, so they went rogue. After they returned, O’Hair described the harrowing journey as ” being tossed about like a stick in a dog’s mouth.” O’Hair exited the navigation spot and Lt. William Jones-Burdick joined Duckworth for a second flight into the gigantic storm.

The 1943 Surprise Hurricane, as it was later dubbed, became the first storm to be probed by humans via machine. Hurricane hunting was born.

Surface weather analysis of the 1943 Surprise hurricane on July 27, 1943 - NOAA

The value of the reconnaissance hurricane hunting could provide was immediately clear. Flights probing storms ramped up throughout the 1940s and 50s, via the military and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Then, in the 1960s, satellites threatened to end the nascent intersection of science and flying artistry. Why put human lives in danger when we could monitor these storms from space? 51 people have perished while attempting to pierce hurricanes with airplanes over the years. NOAA argued satellites can accurately and safely keep tabs on the location of a storm, but they cannot provide accurate barometric and wind readings. To date, nothing cosmic can observe pressure and gale readings as well as instruments on an airplane.

So, the hurricane hunters persist.

View of the eyewall of Hurricane Katrina taken on August 28, 2005, by a NOAA P-3 - NOAA

The second video above, particularly, illustrates the awesome power of a hurricane as an aircraft passes through it. And then, suddenly, they stab the eyewall and peace erupts. To fly inside the eye of a hurricane must be one of the most fascinating experiences one could have on the planet.

Human-controlled flights and, more recently, drone operations have provided a scientific boon on hurricanes in the past century, in addition to a slew of beautiful photography and video footage. One thing they have not achieved, however, is to tell us what happens inside these massive, rotating storms at sea level.

As dangerous as air travel is inside a hurricane, a craft on the roiled ocean is probably worse. Sending humans on seacraft into the clutches of a major hurricane is simply a non-starter. Airplanes are in perilous zones for far shorter periods and do not need to deal with waves.

Enter a company called Saildrone.

A salidrone - photo by Salidrone and NOAA

The organization partnered with NOAA to create a drone that motors along the surface of the ocean. They developed a “hurricane wing” that allows the craft to remain operational during extraordinarily high winds.

The Saildrone Explorer SD 1045 recently visited Hurricane Sam, which reached a category-4 status in the Atlantic Ocean but never threatened land. Through winds of 120 miles per hour and waves as high as 50 feet, the drone beamed information to NOAA, surviving the treacherous seas of a hurricane.

The footage is harrowing.

NOAA meteorologists know this new technology will aid in the study of hurricanes and the predictions of their movements and impacts, but they are particularly excited about one area of study.

“Using data collected by saildrones, we expect to improve forecast models that predict rapid intensification of hurricanes,” said Greg Foltz, a NOAA scientist. “Rapid intensification, when hurricane winds strengthen in a matter of hours, is a serious threat to coastal communities. New data from saildrones and other uncrewed systems that NOAA is using will help us better predict the forces that drive hurricanes and be able to warn communities earlier.”

Perhaps, as technology advances, we will one day not need to send humans in airborne metal tubes into the teeth of gargantuan storms. The days of the hurricane drone are young but promising.

Further Reading and Exploration

INTO THE EYE OF THE STORM – Popular Mechanics

NOAA Hurricane Hunters – NOAA

A world first: Ocean drone captures video from inside a hurricane – NOAA

Salidrone – Official website

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