WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) -- When the tropics get active, the famous Hurricane Hunter aircraft are meteorologists' eye in the sky. These are more than just planes. They are working laboratories sent on missions that would make most queasy.
When the weather is the worst, these planes fly through the eye wall of the storm, trying to figure out what's going on. It's more than just a plane, it's one of our most important forecasting tools.
This P-3 Hurricane Hunter has been battle tested through a whopping 99 hurricanes over the last 35 years, flying right into the heart of storms such as Fran and Floyd. But the aircraft isn't your ordinary plane. Its arsenal of observation tools includes temperature and pressure sensors and three weather radars.
When a hurricane is raging at sea, sometimes satellites just aren't enough. That's why we need these planes
"There are certain things you can only get with up close and detailed instruments," National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read said. "So satellites are too far away to get the high detail, high resolution information, and that is the primary reason why we fly."
Once a storm poses a threat to land, the Hurricane Center will make the call for the hunters to go in. After takeoff, the mission is clear: fly a path that will capture the entire storm; especially the eye wall
"It's my job to coordinate with the navigator, who sits across the aisle from me, and we're directing to pilots where to fly the airplane to locate the center of the storm," Flight Director Meteorologist Barry DeMiano.
Meteorologists on board like Barry will direct the pilots to fly a criss-cross path across the storm in multiple directions, crossing directly through the eye wall multiple times, where flight level winds can sometimes reach 200 mph.
"The eye wall is only about 15 to 20 miles in diameter, and the airplane's traveling at about 250 mph, so within a minute or two, you're out of it," DeMiano said. "It may seem like an eternity at that time, which sometimes it has been."
As the plane is flying its path it releases what we call dropsondes, which have the ability to observe and transmit weather information along their path from the plane down to the ocean surface. By launching these at multiple sites throughout the storm, we can really understand what's going on inside. Once that data is recorded, it's time for meteorologists on land to go to work.
"We use all the data from the plane to know exactly how strong it is, how big it is, and then all that information goes into computer models," National Hurricane Center Senior Hurricane Forecaster Daniel Brown said. "We use those computer models to help predict where the storm is going to be in four to fove days and how strong it's going to be."
And through invaluable data like this and increased computing power, forecasts are getting better all the time.
"In the last 15 to 20 years we've seen our track errors cut in half," Brown said. "We're still struggling with intensity, but we are telling people where it's going to be in four to five days much more accurately than we did five or ten years ago."
Now that hurricane season is on our doorstep, it's time for us to get ready. The Hurricane Center's forecast calls for 12 to 18 storms, meaning DeMiano may be busy flying many missions like he has since the 1980s.
"It's a good aircraft," he said. "We've been taking care of it for many, many years. It's taken care of us. This is a good example of where people's tax dollars go."
Hurricane season starts one week from today, and you won't want to miss this year's StormTrack 3 hurricane special. Join Jerry Jackson, Tim Buckley and Asha Davé for all the information you need to get you and your family storm-ready. "Pirates of the Carolinas: Storm at Sea" airs Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. on WWAY NewsChannel 3.