Hurricanes are the most feared weather phenomena known to exist around the world. Occurring during the hot summer months, these tropical storms are referred to by different names: hurricanes, typhoons, and Willy-Willy’s. Scientists and researchers have studied them for decades, and feeble attempts to modify the behavior of these incredibly powerful monsters have yet to yield any measurable success.
As a result of technical advances in satellite observation and on-site investigation by military and government researchers, the basic structure of a hurricane is now understood. Moisture laden winds swirl into the low-pressure center at higher and higher speeds. There they accelerate upwards in a chimney effect, releasing their heat energy and moisture in rotating bands of extreme thunderstorms. Inside the eye of the storm, however, the air is calm, although the air pressure can be quite low. The raging waters below the storm surge upwards inside the eye and push outwards in advance its path. Taken altogether, the rotating high winds, the mountainous storm surge and the raging waters wreak widespread havoc on everything in its path.
Not all hurricanes are alike, however. It is true that they can vary greatly in strength, as indicated by their classification according to the Saffir-Simpson scale. Category One storms are tropical depressions that have reach a wind velocity exceeding 74 miles per hour. On the other end of the scale, a Category Five hurricane will have winds upwards of 150 mph. Anyone that thinks they can survive the vicious onslaught of a storm of this strength is either foolish, delusional, or both. Category 5 storms have been a rare occurrence in the past, at least until global warming began to have an effect on the weather.
In the late night during the month of August, 1969, Crew 2 of the Navy’s Hurricane Hunter Squadron, VW-4, investigated a tropical storm that had formed off the Yucatan. The squadron’s aircraft consisted of six Lockheed Super Constellations, modified with powerful long-range search radar, Doppler and height-finding radar systems. With their rotating antennas housed inside huge fiberglass domes mounted on top and bottom of the aircraft, the elegant “Connie” took on a somewhat mysterious appearance, although they remained quite flight-worthy and were proven veterans of many hurricane and typhoon penetrations.
Inside the aircraft, the Crew’s Combat Information Officer and Aerographers studied the radar’s glowing green display, as successive sweeps of the radar revealed countless thunderstorms percolating in great spiraling bands. Their mission was to collect as much information as possible and relay it back to the Navy’s Fleet Weather Center and the National Hurricane Center. Crucial information about the storm’s wind speeds, direction, sea state, and air pressure had to be gathered for the purpose of forecasting the storm’s path. Once inside the eye, the Crew’s navigator would fix its location and direction. If the winds were of sufficient velocity, the tropical storm would be named according to a list prepared in advance by the National Hurricane Center.
Hurricane penetrations had become a routine event for the aircraft’s seasoned crew. Most were veterans of several hurricane investigations and had logged hundreds of hours in routine flight operations. The rules for penetrating a hurricane have been established from experience and common-sense: fly towards the eyewall between the bands of protesting thunderstorms, penetrate the eyewall, maneuver the aircraft into a circular pattern inside the eye. Remain inside the eye until all the measurements and navigation fixes are made, relay the information by radio, and then reverse the procedure by flying out through the eyewall again. Of course, the diameter of the eye was an important factor to consider; too small an eye and the aircraft wouldn’t be able to safely maneuver in a circling pattern. Successive penetrations, at different altitudes or from a different direction would add to the information about the storm and help determine its strength, direction and potential danger to the millions of people living in coastal areas.
Penetrating this particular tropical storm, however, turned out to be less that routine. First, the crew fought to conquer the eyewall’s winds, unexpectedly exceeding 200 MPH. At full power, the Super Connie’s engines could only muster a top speed of around 190 MPH. For a short period of time, which must have seemed like an eternity to the pilot and crew, the aircraft was flying backward, or as the navigator put it “Negative Groundspeed!” Imagine riding in a roller coaster backwards. Nevertheless, the powerful aircraft eventually triumphed, penetrating the eyewall with only a few bumps and bruises from loose pieces of equipment being shaken from their mounts. Inside the eye of the storm, the air pressure was recorded at an extreme low of 901 millibars. A storm this powerful hadn’t been recorded since 1935.
During the brief respite inside the storm’s eye, which is always calm and surreal, the crew’s radio operator relayed pages of weather data to Fleet Weather Center and the National Hurricane Center. Shortly after the last page was sent, the crew was informed that the once unknown tropical storm had been given the name Camille. Hurricane Camille was tracking north, heading for Cuba. If it remained on its current track, it would likely strike the gulf coast of the United States within a few days.
However, for these Hurricane Hunters, it was time to head for their next assignment: Hurricane Debbie and Project Stormfury. Hurricane Debbie was moving towards Florida and was ideally suited for the long anticipated weather control experiment. Project Stormfury, however, would prove to be an unsuccessful attempt to alter the anatomy of a hurricane by seeding it with silver-iodine. Observing the effects of the experiment from inside the eye of Hurricane Debbie, Crew 2 found themselves facing many new, unexpected challenges, but that’s another story.
As 1969 progressed, Crew 2 made acquaintance with three more divine ladies of the sea: hurricanes named Inga, Kara, and Lori were unique encounters with love in all the wrong places, to borrow a phrase from Waylon Jennings’ country song. The truth about Hurricane Hunters is that they love the anatomy of a hurricane and the chase that goes on to this day.
Note: The Navy’s Hurricane Hunter Squadron, VW-4 was decommissioned in 1975 after thirty years of exemplary service. Today, the Airforce’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron and NOAA bravely continue fly hurricane reconnaissance missions.