Hurricane hunter plane delivers a message: Get ready

A pair of hurricane hunter planes landed at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Opa-Locka air station Friday with a message for South Florida: Get ready.

With the start of the hurricane season less than two weeks away on June 1, the planes helped showcase the advancing technology that has helped improve hurricane forecasting. They also carried Rick Knabb, the outgoing director of the National Hurricane Center, on a farewell lap around the state. The planes, an Air Force C-130 and a P3 originally designed by the Navy to hunt submarines, kind of hogged the show.

“We’re like a flying test tube,” said Sgt. Nathan Calloway, the load master for the Air Force plane in charge of dropping weather instruments called dropsondes into the storm.

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A U.S. Air Force C-130 hurricane hunter plan sits on the tarmac at Opa-locka Airport’s US Coast Guard Air Station Miami, where school children, reporters and other toured the plane Friday.

José A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Friday marked the last day on the job for Knabb, who is returning to his post at the Weather Channel as an on-air hurricane expert. During his four years as director, he helped shepherd narrowing track forecasts and new flood alerts.

At a media briefing, Knabb took a final chance to thank his colleagues and rally the public to begin preparations now for the upcoming season.

If these folks are willing to fly into a hurricane for us, then the least we can do is get ready for the next hurricane.

Rick Knabb, outgoing National Hurricane Center director

“If these folks are willing to fly into a hurricane for us, then the least we can do is get ready for the next hurricane,” Knabb said before running down a checklist. Chief on his list: Know local evacuation zones (Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties all have online maps and plans), load up on supplies, test storm shutters and update wind and flood insurance information.

“Hurricane Andrew happened in a below average year,” he said of the storm that flattened parts of the county 25 years ago this August. “It doesn’t matter how busy the season is overall. What matters is how bad it is where you live.”

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Stickers with the names of all the tropical storms and hurricanes it has flown into decorate the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s hurricane hunter plane nicknamed Kermit.

José A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

This year, hurricane forecasters have added two new tools to warn the public. For the first time, they will issue storm surge watches and warnings that will let the public know when coastal flooding is expected. They will also begin issuing forecast advisories on near-shore systems that haven’t yet become storms but are close enough to become a threat with rapid intensification.

The new powerful GOES-16 satellite, launched in November, is also expected to better forecasts by collecting images at a far greater resolution and speed than earlier satellites. The satellite helps provide big-picture information on a storm, in contrast to the up-close look delivered by the hurricane hunter planes that remain central to forecasting, said Jack Bevin, a senior hurricane specialist for the National Hurricane Center.

We have a lot of other tools to monitor, but there’s nothing like the airplane to send into a storm.

Jack Bevin, senior forecaster, National Hurricane Center

“We have a lot of other tools to monitor, but there’s nothing like the airplane to send into a storm,” he said. “It’s our ground troops.”

And a big one. The planes in the fleet can weigh up to 135,000 pounds fully loaded and cost up to $300 million, said Lt. Rob Mitchell, a NOAA pilot. Both the Air Force and NOAA planes fly into storms, but they have different missions. The big-bellied green C-130s fly more frequently — every eight hours — and record real-time data with dropsondes shot into the outer edge and center of the storm in an X pattern.

The plane’s primary mission is finding the center of the storm so forecasters can predict intensity and size, not exactly an easy assignment for pilots.

“There is a strategy: not to get the plane ripped apart,” said Maj. Kendall Dunn, who flew Black Hawk helicopters for the U.S. Army before switching to the hurricane hunter post four years ago.

Last year, Dunn piloted a plane in winds up to 166 mph during Hurricane Matthew, short of the record set by a colleague who flew into record winds recorded above 200 mph in Hurricane Patricia in 2015.

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The nose of the NOAA plane is equipped with radar and a probe to measure wind gusts.

José A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

The NOAA plane, nicknamed Kermit, provides more research, flies every 12 hours and will continue to fly into storms even as they tumble away from land and weaken. Scientists also join the flight, working at stations installed in the narrow cabin to test out new equipment. The plane also includes more sensors, monitored by a flight engineer who looks for signs of failure in sensitive equipment from pounding wind, rain or hail, or icing that can alter readings. The engineer also directs the pilots on where they need to fly.

“We’re always looking for that sweet spot,” said NOAA flight director Jack Parrish.

But even with all their tools, Knabb said preparation remains the public’s best weapon.

“The things you need to do to get ready for the next hurricane and survive the hurricane and recover in the aftermath,” he said, “are a lot more difficult, a lot more expensive if not impossible to do if you wait until the last minute.”