BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) – Both NOAA and the United States Air Force have crews that fly into storms in the tropics to collect valuable information for hurricane forecasting.  

NOAA, or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has two Lockheed WP-3D Orion aircraft that are built to fly through storms and a Gulfstream 4 that collects data around and ahead of storms. 

Both aircraft and crew have an important role in collecting data that cannot be gathered by ground-based radars or satellite that is used for forecasting by the National Hurricane Center. 

When the aircraft is flying through a storm, Lt. Cmdr. Rob Mitchell explains that the “P-3 Orion is uniquely instrumented to be able to monitor a variety of aspects of a storm. What we’re doing is we’re monitoring that storm with our tail doppler radar, our lower fuselage radar, and our in-situ instruments to be able to tell the National Hurricane Center what the winds are, what the location of the center of that storm is and what some of the dynamics [are] between like the ocean temperature [and] the cloud physics.”  

One vital piece of instrumentation that is used is called a dropwindsonde, which is similar to a weather balloon, only in reverse.  

The onboard science technician, Michael “Mac” McAlister, describes that the “in-flight technician will drop about thirty [drop]sondes per flight and they’re collecting everything from pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed, wind direction and radios back to the aircraft about four times per second as it falls through the atmosphere.”  

The data is then collected and checked at various workstations by mission scientists and the meteorologist on board before being sent by satellite to forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.  

The United States Air Force also has aircraft and crews that fly into storms within the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. They fly the Lockheed WC-130J Hercules aircraft which is also built for these special missions.  

They run a similar operation to NOAA, flying into storms with a weather loadmaster who deploys the dropsondes. They will check the data before sending it over to the weather officer.    

As the dropsondes radio back information during their flight to the sea surface, Lt. Col. Tobi Baker will see “flows of data coming through, and so as we’re watching this data, we’re actually [quality controlling] it at the same time while doing the mission and also doing other parts of the mission as well. As all that gets put together, it gets sent out live to the hurricane center.” 

The observational data that both the Air Force and NOAA collect tells forecasters what the current storm structure and intensity looks like which gets inputted into hurricane computer models and assists in building an accurate forecast that you see at home.