Sunday, October 25, 2015

'Most intense turbulence' as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration flies through Hurricane Patricia

If you're someone whose heart rate jumps a bit when your 737 hits a few bumps while soaring over the Cascades, then this job is not for you… 

An extremely brave crew of 13 "hurricane hunters" spent much of their Thursday and Friday intentionally flying a NOAA P3 aircraft right into the heart of Hurricane Patricia -- what turned out to be the strongest storm on record in the Western Hemisphere. As you might imagine, flying around in 200+ mph winds amid towering thunderstorms and swirling updrafts, the "Fasten Seatbelt" sign was on for a vast majority of the flight (not that it really has one.)

P3 Mechanic Lonnie Kregelka decided to brave the cockpit and bring us along on one of their historic flights into the teeth of the monster.

"We were thumped really hard today making our first penetration in Patricia. +3G and -1.5G," Joseph Klipper, who was at the helm, wrote on Facebook. "3G" means they felt forces pulling them that was three times that of standard gravity, and -1.5 G meant it was an opposite push 1.5 times the force of standard gravity. Usually the only way you experience those numbers is if you're on a crazy roller coaster or warming up as a passenger with the Blue Angels. 

"The last ten seconds of this video we hit a up draft followed immediately by a down draft. A very sporting day!" Klipper continued. "Airspeed swings from 240 to 170 knots while attempting unsuccessfully to maintain 210 knots… We were thumped so hard that our flight directors keyboard flew off his station and all of his data was dumped. We circled for a hour afterwards as he reconstructed the penetration, made more difficult by the fact the we encountered record setting pressures and airspeeds." 

It probably wasn't just the keyboard that was knocked off. I imagine the cabin was quite a mess. (If you've ever seen Disneyland's "Twilight Tower of Terror" elevator ride, it was probably something like this, only without the souvenir stand at the end.) 

One of the other pilots on the mission, NOAA Lt. Cdr Patrick Didier, told ABC News that out of all the 3,800 hours of flight time he's clocked so far, his last flight into Hurricane Patricia on Friday "was the most intense turbulence I'd ever encountered." 

"Some of the most experienced among our group said Patricia definitely approached their top five of most turbulent flights they'd ever done," Didier said. "We experienced a few big jolts before punching out of the wall of the eye into the other side. Some of the keyboards flipped and papers got loose in the cabin." 

But their efforts were important -- their data showed the central pressure of the storm was 879 millibars (25.96" on your home barometer) -- a Western Hemisphere record for lowest pressure ever recorded, and not too far from the world record of 870 mb from Typhoon Tip on Oct. 12, 1979.

Hurricane hunters are essential to giving forecasters critical real-time data on developing storms that we just can't get from satellites. Obviously aside from a few sporadic buoys we don't have much for surface data and any ships in the area are likely high-tailing somewhere else. 

The NOAA crew uses specially equipped planes to criss-cross the storm, dropping weather instruments at strategic points in the storm and sending the data back to NOAA. In addition, they make a number of passes through the eye wall -- the strongest part of the storm -- to measure peak winds, and storm structure, and then fly into the storm's eye to measure its central pressure, its distance across, and how the storm is behaving.  The data is also crucial to feed into real-time hurricane forecasting models to improve their accuracy.

It was these flights with Patricia that sounded the alarm to forecasters at how rapidly the storm was intensifying -- we would have never known 879 mb or 200 mph winds. But also showed the eye wasn't very wide - about 7-12 miles across. Usually you think of the eye of a hurricane and winds are calm with sunny skies, but Patricia's eye was so narrow, the "calm" winds were only about 50 mph at the center ("There's not a lot of space to go from 190 mph winds to calm," one forecaster wrote about Patricia) with not enough space for clear skies, just lighter clouds. 

We were fortunate in this particular storm that it had such a narrow eye wall and managed to make landfall in a very sparesly populated spot of Mexico. But imagine had it hit closer to a city, and with how fast it intensified (85 mph to 200 mph in a day! Another record...) we might not have known just how strong the storm was without the hurricane hunter data.

So next time you're getting jostled a bit on that flight over the mountains, take some solace that it could be much worse -- and NOAA still has a perfect record of safety even after flying through countless hurricanes.

- Story, video and photos:

The crew of ‪#‎NOAA43‬ (‪#‎NOAA‬ P3) from the historic flight into East Pacific hurricane ‪#‎Patricia‬ (Photo Joseph Klippel, AOC Flight Engineer) 10/23/2015. Back row: Joe Sapp, Mike Holmes, Joseph Klippel, Lonnie Kregelka, Jim Warnecke, Tim Gallagher, Chris Lalonde, Bill Olney, Dana Naeher, Bobby Peek. Kneeling- Pat Didier, Scott Price and Adam Abitbol.

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