The most popular woman last week was no pop star at the MTV Music Awards - it was Hurricane Irene. She made headlines by slamming the east coast and leaving a path more destructive than an angry, drunk ex-girlfriend. If you had access to any type of media, then you undoubtedly saw the endless amount weather maps predicting her chaotic path of estrogen. Now, what you probably don’t know is how her path was plotted and predicted. The common misperception is that it’s mystically conjured by some tall, free-standing radar tower that spews out metrics onto a computer screen. Then, the graphs and numbers are interpreted by some college-boy-turned-local-weather-guy who sits behind the safety of his sleek news desk in a comfy pleather chair. Well, not so fast there college boy! These numbers would not exist if it weren’t for this squadron of former Navy pilots that flew a quad propeller air-beast straight into the eye of that scurvy wench. Luckily, I had a chance to catch up with these storm cowboys at the local watering hole last Friday.
Chris Kerns, Mark Sweeney, and Carl Newman of the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Aircraft Operations Center at MacDill Air Force base in Tampa, FL weren’t hard to miss that night because they were the only ones there wearing navy blue jump suits. They were fresh off their final evening with Irene and were celebrating a job well done. I decided to break the ice. So, I bought the boys a round, walked up and spouted off, “So, what’s it like to fly space shuttles?”
They laughed and one of them replied, “Ha. Those guys are wimps. We fly planes into Cat. 5 hurricanes.” We all laughed and started talking beer. I complemented Mark and Chris on their dark beer choice which they told me was Newcastle. Carl was wielding his iPad 2 and pulled up a picture of the plane they fly. It’s a Lockheed WP-3D Orion with 44,600 horsepower turbo prop engines. It’s also specially outfitted with a slew of weather instruments and a radar dish on the bottom of the nose that I’m positive will still pick up any game even in any weather.
It quickly became apparent to me that these guys were a tight-knit crew and in their line of work, trust is king. If you’ve ever met a group of fire fighters, these guys reminded me a lot of them. In fact, Chris, the youngest of the group, was explaining to me how all the measurements were taken. Of course I nodded as if I understood the mish-mash of scientific terms that he was delivering. At one point, I think that he finally realized that there were no wheels turning behind my blank stare and he said in layman’s terms, “It’s kind of like bubbles coming up underneath the plane.” Big mistake.
Without hesitation Carl, the squadron veteran, turned to Chris and said “Did you just say bubbles?”
Chris replied “Yeah, I’m just explaining how…”
Then he was immediately cut off by Mark who fired off “Don’t ever say ‘bubbles’ again.” There’s really nothing better than witnessing a little rookie hazing. Despite taking some crap, Chris laid the whole process out in dummy terms for me. Essentially, they fly through the storm at about 10,000 feet at different angles and release Dropwindsondes (radio transmitters with mini parachutes) into the eye of the the storm. Every time I talk to someone who I know has seen a thing or two, like a soldier, a police officer, or a pest control man, its always my knee jerk reaction to wonder what’s the craziest experience they have ever had. And, don’t lie to yourself, you think like this too. So, I asked the group what it was like to fly through a Category 5 hurricane to which Chris surprised me with his answer. “It’s actually a much smoother ride than for example a tropical storm. The strength of a storm is usually a reflection of how well it’s organized. So, naturally the more powerful a storm the more organized it is, thus providing a smother ride.”
OK, I’ll be honest with you, I really wanted to hear him say something more along the lines of “Well, the winds were so powerful the plane lost a propeller, an engine caught fire, and we nose dived into into a spiral until we were finally able to blast through the outer wall of the storm and limp back to base… but we still got the job done.” Oh well.
Just like the quarterback may be the fan favorite, no play develops without the offensive linemen grinding it out up front. And just like the local weather man, who plays Monday morning quarterback and prances in front of his green screen, is the town celebrity, the men of NOAA saddle a 135,000 pound flying mule hellbent on fetchen’ some pressure readings and other scientific stuff – without which that college boy can’t shine.
Their Mission: Fly in and out of Irene until they finally drop their load right into her eye. Mission Accomplished.