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Inside look at a hurricane hunter plane

Posted at 7:57 PM, May 06, 2011
and last updated 2016-03-18 15:11:03-04

 The National Hurricane Center showed off one of its biggest and most valuable tools Friday; a P-3D Orion "Hurricane Hunter" aircraft which is a vital part of hurricane forecasting.

"We want to protect life and property so we want the best tools that we can have out there to do that and thats these aircraft right here so whenever there's a hurricane threatening, were flying this aircraft," said Daniel Brown of the National Hurricane Center.

Manned by a 16-20 person crew, it can fly nine-hour missions to gather information about what a hurricane is doing.

"Without it, I think we would see a definite loss in the skill of our forecast so for now the reconnaissance is our number one tool for the precision we can get at the start of the forecast," said National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read.

Forecasters get data from two on-board research radars, cloud particle instruments, and by sending an instrument packet, called a dropsonde, directly into the hurricane.

The dropsonde measures things like wind speed, pressure, and humidity as it falls all the way through the hurricane to the surface.

According to Jim McFadden, who has flown more than 500 mission in the Hurricane Hunter, "That information all goes into the models and helps them predict two-three days what that storm's going to be doing. So you have to understand what's going on now to help predict the future."

Even though they are flying an airplane through a hurricane, aside from some constant turbulence, most flights are uneventful.There are rarely scary flights.

However, McFadden did recall one harrowing mission: "We were flying at 15-hundred feet and it was like gang-busters it was a category 5, we had winds over 200 mph, severe turbulence, severe, I'm telling you! and one of the engines decided it was time to quit running so it stopped. We were in the eye we were very low, were losing altitude and of course it's like, Huh."

That infamous flight into hurricane Hugo was in the plane nicknamed "Kermit" the frog. It has flown into nearly 100 storms in its 36-year life.

"Kermit" has about 11,000 flight hours on it, but it's only about half-way through its expected operational life.