Hurricane Plane Flies Into Storms to Sharpen Forecasts

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

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