RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Brad Boudreaux, left, Shannon Hailes and Kurt Nelson, crew members aboard an Air Force C-130 hurricane-chasing plane, landed yesterday at Hickam Air Force Base. CLICK FOR LARGE
'Hurricane Hunters' track constant changes
Within 12 hours the eye of Hurricane Flossie grew to 25 miles from 16 miles in diameter yesterday as it moved toward the southern tip of the island chain -- and a specially equipped Air Force plane was watching its every move.
Since Sunday, C-130 Hercules middle-range cargo planes have flown missions into the eye of Flossie, spending as much as six hours at a time there, transmitting wind speed, temperatures, humidity and pressure readings to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
"It helps them better predict what the storm will do," said Lt. Col. John Fox, who was one of five Air Force reservists on the first flight of "Hurricane Hunters" on Sunday. "It's like sitting in a car wash for six hours."
Ten C-130 aircraft and 125 airmen and women from the Air Force Reserve's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron of 403rd Wing are assigned to the Hurricane Hunters in Biloxi, Miss., at Keesler Air Force Base.
Fox, who has flown into more than 100 hurricanes over the past 11 years, described Flossie as "a very compact" hurricane. "If it wasn't compact, it would lead a bigger path of destruction."
By comparison, Hurricane Katrina's eye had a radius of 30 miles, and its sustained winds extended in a 200-mile radius, compared with Flossie's radius of 90 miles, Fox said.
He said it was like comparing Steve Urkel to boxer Mike Tyson. Urkel was the nerdy teenager with thick glasses on the 1990s sitcom "Family Matters."
Lt. Col. Kurt Nelson, whose crew flew directly into Flossie's eye after a seven-hour flight from Northern California, said his aircraft had a hard time finding the storm since it was 56 miles farther north than what was forecast.
Each Hurricane Hunter mission is about 11 hours, including about 2 1/2 hours from Hickam Air Force Base to the storm's eye and 2 1/2 hours back, Fox said. A flight will leave almost every 12 hours until Flossie clears the islands.
Flying at 10,000 feet, the Hurricane Hunters send data from the hurricane every six hours. That means a transmission when they first arrive and again when they leave the storm. The crew of the C-130 flies "left-turn patterns" into the eye of the storm.
Some of the C-130s are equipped with stepped-frequency microwave radiometers, or "smurfs," strapped to the aircraft's wing. As the plane flies through the storm, the smurf senses microwave radiation naturally emitted from the foam created on the surface of the ocean by winds. Computers are then used to determine wind speeds. The unit also deploys the dropsonde system, which is equipped with a high-frequency radio and other sensing devices that relay temperature, humidity, barometric pressure and wind speeds to the aircraft.