Hurricane hunters await new aircraft for fleet upgrade

·5 min read

ORLANDO, Fla. — As scientists expect to see more hurricanes, Florida’s hurricane hunters are getting an upgrade to their fleet.

Stationed about 60 miles south of Orlando, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s hurricane hunter team houses three aircraft at the Lakeland Linder International Airport: two Lockheed WP-3D Orion (P-3) four-engine turboprop aircraft and one Gulfstream IV-SP (G-IV).

All three are affectionately named after Muppets characters. The P-3s are Kermit and Miss Piggy. The G-IV with the big nose is obviously Gonzo.

The team will have to make room in the garage for a new Gulfstream 550.

The NOAA had been targeting the acquisition of a new aircraft since 2019 and had original plans for it to be active by 2022. Now, the team will have to wait a couple more hurricane seasons before it’s ready to officially join the team, said NOAA Aircraft Operations Center spokesperson Johnathan Shannon.

“We are continuing to work with Gulfstream on integrating the desired instruments and weather modifications and now expect delivery in time for the 2024 hurricane season,” Shannon said.

The incoming G-550 baseline, or green, aircraft is expected to cost $40.7 million.

Just which Muppet the new aircraft will be named after has yet to be announced, but there’s plenty of time before the NOAA gets its hands on it.

The G-550 will be outfitted with weather technology such as real-time Doppler radar, dropsondes capabilities, enhanced sensors and space for wing pods to mount cloud sensors, Shannon said. It will also be tailored to carry up to 14 crew and mission systems operators, including flight directors, meteorologists, hurricane specialists, and engineers.

The aircraft will be flying between 43,000 and 49,000 feet at Mach 0.8 for nine-hour missions to explore hurricanes, tropical storms and atmospheric rivers, all while doing so with that new aircraft smell — something perhaps that has been long missing in the NOAA’s fleet.

The hurricane hunter’s G-IV, Gonzo, was built in 1994 and joined the fleet in 1997 after modifications were made to support the NOAA’s scientific missions, Shannon said.

“[Gonzo] is reaching the end of its useful service life. There are no immediate plans to retire the NOAA Gulfstream IV-SP,” Shannon said. “It will continue to fly missions as long as it remains operationally capable.”

Part of the reason the hurricane hunters aren’t in a rush to retire Gonzo is that hurricane seasons are getting more taxing.

The 2021 season was well above average with 20 named storms but didn’t put the Aircraft Operation Center in a spin like the record-breaking 2020 season, which had 30 named storms, the most ever recorded. The hurricane hunters logged in 678 flight hours last year researching hurricanes. It was also the first time in more than five years, both P-3s were deployed for hurricane exploration at the same time, Shannon said. This year, hurricane hunters have logged 462 hours.

In September, one of the P-3s, Miss Piggy, had navigational instruments fail in flight while gathering data for Hurricane Sam in the Caribbean. The crew was fine and was able to continue its mission thanks to Kermit, which was waiting in St. Croix, the AOC’s flight director Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Doremus told the Orlando Sentinel earlier this season.

The AOC did not comment on the status of Miss Piggy’s navigational equipment.

Both Kermit and Miss Piggy were obtained from Lockheed Martin in the mid-1970s, according to the NOAA.

For now, both P-3s are on schedule to take off for the remainder of hurricane season, although talk of replacing the jets had been floated earlier this year, Shannon said.

“The NOAA Aircraft Operations Center is planning to purchase and modify additional aircraft with the reliability and redundancy in performing the critical missions as is currently executed by the WP-3Ds,” he said.

New aircraft are just the outer edge of the NOAA’s rain bands of exploring innovative technologies for a better understanding of hurricanes. Earlier this year, the NOAA unveiled its new research drone; the Altius-600, which can fly where aircraft can’t do so safely near the ocean’s surface where winds blow more than 100 mph and waves reach up 30 feet. Dropsondes are used in similar ways to capture hurricane data, but only offer a snapshot inside the storm, whereas the Altius offers a movie, the NOAA said in a press release.

On Sept. 30, the NOAA caught a stroke of good luck with Hurricane Sam’s location in the Atlantic and was able to launch a “saildrone” built with a hurricane wing to withstand extreme, torrential conditions at sea. The drone captured video — the first of its kind — of 50-foot waves produced by Sam, as well as important storm data. Prior to the event, Saildrone Inc. and the NOAA agreed on a $1.1 million deal that would allow the NOAA to place five of these drones around the Atlantic in hopes of positioning them near a hurricane.

In continuing to develop information-gathering technology, the NOAA proposed in its 2022 budget an increase of $4 million to advance research in NOAA’s use of aircraft and maritime uncrewed systems. The funds will allow researchers to test and finalize projects into operational use for future seasons. While the team hopes future uncrewed systems will help keep its members safe, the NOAA still plans on investing in crewed aircraft in the foreseeable future.

The weather science organization also requested $100 million in its 2022 budgetfor the acquisition of a potential second G-550, still pending federal approval, according to the NOAA’s 2022 budget

“NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviations Operations investment in both crewed and uncrewed technologies provides extended capabilities and flexibility to our scientific partners, allowing us to take advantage of each platform’s strengths to gather and deliver high-quality scientific data,” Shannon said.


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