Hurricane Plane Flies Into Storms to Sharpen Forecasts

John Roach
for National Geographic News
June 12, 2006
High-altitude pilot David Wright took two passes over the eye of
Hurricane Emily last July, and then caution took hold.

"The turbulence became pretty significant," Wright said. "I decided the better part of valor was to fly in a box pattern the remainder of the night."

Emily at the time was a Category Five hurricane. Such storms have sustained winds of at least 156 miles (250 kilometers) an hour. Lightning bolts lit up the eye and appeared to reach the altitude of Wright's plane.

He was flying an ER-2 research aircraft at an altitude of more than 65,000 feet (19,800 meters). The flight was part of a NASA mission to better understand how tropical storms form, intensify, and travel.

Wright is based out of NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. The flights were part of the Tropical Cloud Systems and Processes (TCSP) mission last July based in San Jose, Costa Rica (Costa Rica map and facts).

"What the science community is getting at is the ability to define the direction and intensity of these storms as far in advance as possible to facilitate the early evacuation of people," he said.

During the two week mission, scientists tracked hurricanes Dennis and Emily at their peak intensity and monitored the buildup and behavior of several tropical storms off the east and west coasts of the Central American country.

The research may ultimately be incorporated into computer models used to generate real-time hurricane forecasts, says Robbie Hood, a TCSP scientist at the NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

But it will be several years before such forecasts are possible, she added.

"We like to make sure it's thoroughly tested before we put any new changes into the models," she said.

(Related: "New Hurricane-Forecast Tool Debuts (And Just in Time)" [April 2005].)

Modified Spy Plane

The ER-2 is a modified version of the U-2S spy plane flown by the U.S. military. According to unclassified NASA reports, the plane can fly at altitudes greater than 70,000 feet (21,300 meters).

For the TCSP mission, scientists placed instruments designed to collect weather data—such as wind speeds and moisture content in clouds—under the wings and nose and behind the cockpit.

The plane has a 104-foot (32-meter) wingspan and can fly for more than 10 hours on a full tank of jet fuel at speeds of a little over 460 miles (740 kilometers) an hour, Wright says.

Pilots wear full pressure suits similar to the ones astronauts wear on the space shuttles. The suits provide protection in case cabin pressure is lost at high altitudes.

The plane's tight cockpit allows the pilot to move the yoke and throttle that control the aircraft and push buttons to turn on and off the science experiments—but not much else.

"There's not a lot of room to move around, particularly with that suit on," Wright said.

During the TCSP mission the ER-2's range allowed the aircraft to fly into—and loiter for several hours in—areas above the Atlantic where tropical storms form.

Remote-sensing satellites, by contrast, may only pass over a single spot once every three or four days, Wright said. In that same time frame, the ER-2 can fly three or four ten-hour missions.

Hurricane Emily

At the height of Hurricane Emily, NASA researchers in Costa Rica dispatched Wright in the ER-2. He said the storm was among the most terrifying sights he has ever seen.

Lightning filled the "wall" of the eye of the hurricane, and even though he was at an altitude of 65,000 feet (20,000 meters), it looked like he might get struck.

"That's one of the illusions of flying at night," he said. "The perception of altitude is a bit difficult."

He was able to clear the lightning bolts, but the turbulence at the eye wall was too much.

After the second pass Wright flew a pattern around the eye wall instead as onboard instruments collected details on the storm's vertical structure and precipitation levels.

Edward Zipser, a meteorologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, was a scientist on the TCSP mission.

He says that, while the data collected during Wright's flights will not improve forecasts for this season, it is crucial for hurricane science.

"This is cutting edge research, and cutting edge research in meteorology contributes to basic understanding of the processes that drive hurricanes," Zipser said in an email.

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