Hurricane Special: Inside the Hurricane Hunters

Posted at 7:30 PM, Jun 01, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-02 16:27:43-04

COLLIER COUNTY, Fla. -- Most of us never have to experience what it is like to be in the direct path of a hurricane.  But for members of the United States Air Force team known as Hurricane Hunters, it's their job to fly directly through the eye of the storm.

Fox 4 recently took a tour of the aircraft they use and met some of these brave men and women. We got an up-close look at some of their latest technology when NOAA brought these planes to Naples to educate the public about hurricane preparedness.

The wind, the rain and the turbulence, Hurricane Hunters fly through it all.  "Most people avoid all that weather. We actually fly on top and around the weather and some of our guys fly inside of it."

Flight mechanic Angel Negron has been chasing hurricanes inside a NOAA Gulfstream Four since 2009. He says the planes are specially designed to analyze the storm with advanced radar technology and a special tool called a dropsonde.  "It records temperature, pressure, GPS positioning, the humidity levels. These are all factors that influence the formation and tracking of a storm."

The dropsondes are released about 30 to 40 times throughout the course of the flight to get the most accurate information -- information not available by looking at just satellites and computer models.

The G-Four flies at 45,000 feet above and around the hurricane to see where the storm is going, while other Hurricane Hunter planes fly at a much lower altitude right where the action is.  "You don't want to know just how intense it is and focus on the eye and the eye wall, you also want to know how big that wind field is, so that's why we do an 'X' through the storm so that we've seen every side of it a couple times," says flight meteorologist Capt. Nicole Mitchell.

And by a couple times, she means six hours of intense flight.  "People try to say what is it like. The P-3 is kinda like being in a car wash with a one ton gorilla jumping up and down on top of you. This is more like the worst airline experience you've ever had.  So a little bit smoother, but we still get bumped around," says Negron.

Given the name 'Gonzo' for its elongated nose, the jet is part of a fleet of Hurricane Hunters sent out by the National Hurricane Center to gather information used by researchers, meteorologists, and emergency managers to make important decisions when a storm is approaching land.

"Anything that they think needs to be checked out, from a baby storm to a Cat 5. If they ask us to fly it, we will use our resources and take care of that," says Capt. Mitchell.

It is resources and technology like this which help Storm Shield 4 give you the most accurate information during hurricane season.