Hurricane Hunters on the 'Truly Amazing' Experience of Flying Through the Eye of a Storm

Flying directly into tropical cyclones may seem crazy, but that is the job description for the Hurricane Hunters of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Hurricane Hunters fly specially equipped NOAA aircraft into and around these storms in order to collect critical—and potentially life-saving—meteorological data.

Newsweek spoke to some of the NOAA's Hurricane Hunters about their job, which must surely rank as one of the most extreme professions on Earth.

What does the job of a hurricane hunter involve?

Paul Flaherty, Flight Director/Meteorologist—Chief, Science Branch: Each pass through the storm begins over 100 miles out from the center, as we map the strength and size of the storm's wind-field. As we approach the storm, we must be able to understand our radar display as it may look in three dimensions, in order to keep the aircraft out of the riskiest parts of the eyewall. Once safely inside the eye, we use the wind direction to "hunt" the center, which allows us to measure critical pressure and location information. Doing this multiple times gives scientists and weather models the information they need to create high-confidence forecasts, which in turn allows emergency managers and the media to alert the right people about potential storm-related risks.

Commander Jason Mansour, NOAA Corps—Gulfstream IV-SP pilot: From an aviator perspective, the position of being an NOAA Hurricane Hunter is ensuring that the aircraft is in the right position at the right time to obtain the right data as safely and efficiently as possible. We go into harm's way for the greater good and I take a lot of pride in that.

How dangerous is it to fly into tropical cyclones? What can you do to mitigate the risks?

Jack Parrish, NOAA Flight Director/Meteorologist: Fortunately, there are atmospheric conditions in tropical cyclones that make them essentially safe to fly through with a sturdy aircraft and well-trained crew. In contrast, we would never recommend any type of aircraft fly through a midwest supercell thunderstorm or severe hailstorm. Our risk is mitigated by taking the most direct course at the proper airspeed through those regions of greatest hazard. So when you see our tracks, we cross perpendicularly through the eyewalls, the areas of strongest turbulence, heaviest rainfall and greatest wind shear. It's bumpy for sure at times, but we're well harnessed and secure in the cabin. It's essential to get through these rough areas to obtain the strongest surface winds and the lowest pressure to transmit to the National Hurricane Center.

Eye of Hurricane Laura
View of the stadium effect in the eye of Category 4 Hurricane Laura from the Flight Director station of an NOAA WP-3D Orion N42RF Kermit aircraft on Aug 26, 2020. Ashley Lundry/NOAA

Flaherty: I would personally use the term "risky" over dangerous. We train our crews to be quick thinkers, and to be able to adapt to rapidly changing situations. We discuss potential risks, and run through "what if" scenarios. We practice these possible scenarios when flying, and document ways to mitigate potential risks. Still, there are reasons why most people would not purposely fly a plane through a hurricane eyewall, and we should never lose sight of that. Respecting the kind of weather that we fly is important.

What does it feel like to fly into these storms?

Parrish: It certainly keeps us wide awake, even in the early dark hours of the morning; hurricanes are flown night and day. Most regions of the storms away from the eye are fairly gray and rainy, with thunderstorm lightning in the rainbands brightening our surroundings now and then. The onboard radars do a great job of depicting the worst conditions ahead, usually the eyewall, the last band of severe weather before we break into the eye. In strong eyewalls you can't even see the wingtips, the rain is so heavy, and the aircraft is flown safely only on instruments. We know where to expect the strongest turbulence, but there can always be surprises. Then as we get through the worst of it, things begin to lighten up throughout the cabin before we break into the cloud-free eye. A truly amazing moment, seeing nature's majesty encircling our small aircraft in perfectly smooth air, thunderstorms completely surrounding the eye. Then it's outbound through the opposite eyewall to continue the pattern of mapping all quadrants of the storm. It truly never gets dull, since every storm and every pass is unique as the tropical cyclone evolves.

Hurricane Irma in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Trees bend in the tropical storm wind along North Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard as Hurricane Irma hits the southern part of the state on September 10, 2017 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Nick Underwood, Aerospace Engineer: On our WP-3Ds, which are flying right through the storm between 8,000-12,000 feet, the ride can be pretty bumpy. I sometimes liken the worst of it to riding a wooden roller coaster through an automatic car wash. For me personally, when flying a major life-threatening storm, I also feel a weight of the importance of what we're going up to do. Millions of people are watching closely and counting on those forecasts to inform their decisions, and we want to do the best job we can up there.

Flaherty: Although incredibly busy once flying, there are random moments that move between "Wow!" and "What the heck are we doing here?" Those are the moments you'll remember forever. After the mission, we hope the information we provided will result in "good news," but that's often wishful thinking. Still, if the information we provided helps get the right people to safety, it is good to know that your efforts made a difference, and possibly even saved a few lives.

Have you had any particularly dramatic experiences while on the job?

Flaherty: It's not possible to do this job for several years without having a few memorable moments. During my first full hurricane season, my crew was deployed to St. Croix, flying in and around Category 5 Hurricane Isabel. We were flying low on the western edge of the storm when I requested a spiral ascent to a higher altitude, so that we could make one last fix of Isabel's position and strength before we returned to St. Croix. Just as the pilots confirmed the intent and began to climb, I saw a bright orange glow out the window across from my seat. Someone in the back began to shout: "Fire, Engine 3," and everyone quickly went into checklist mode and did what was needed.

An NOAA Hurricane Hunters aircraft
Sunrise seen from the flight station of an NOAA WP-3D Orion N42RF Kermit aircraft heading to Tropical Storm Elsa on July 4, 2021. Lt Cmdr Rannenberg/NOAA

Being on the western edge of a Cat-5 hurricane spinning counter-clockwise, I knew we would have incredibly strong tailwinds to get where we needed. I also knew that in a worst-case ditching scenario, since the storm was moving toward the west at the time, the chances of someone coming out to get us would increase incredibly rapidly as we moved south with these winds. So my input to the situation was pretty simple: "Just keep heading south." Everyone did their jobs and we landed fine in St. Croix with three engines, only to learn that our other three engines were close to failure as well due to the amount of salt-ingestion. Had the other engines failed at the same time and we had to ditch at that location, it's unlikely we could have survived a Cat-5 storm moving directly over our head. That was certainly a dramatic "welcome to the job" moment.

In an era of climate change, is there a need for more hurricane hunters?

Nikki Hathaway, Flight Director/Meteorologist: With more hurricane hunters, comes the opportunity to collect more data. More data is never a bad thing in the world of science! As our climate continues to evolve, the need to capture this data will be critical, and for that reason the demand of individuals to collect that data will likely increase as well.

NOAA Hurricane Hunters tracking Hurricane Elsa
NOAA Flight Directors Rich Henning and Quinn Kalen monitor Hurricane Elsa during a July 2, 2021, mission onboard an NOAA Gulfstream IV-SP N49RF aircraft. Nick Underwood/NOAA