JACKSON, Miss. – The Air Force Reserve's Hurricane Hunters (search) -- those fearless crews who fly into the eye of the storm to gather critical information -- were chased from their base on the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Ivan (search).
On Tuesday, the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (search), better known as the military's Hurricane Hunters, evacuated Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi and resumed their daredevil flights into Ivan from Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida.
"That is a storm you pray no one will ever have to endure on the ground. The storm is extremely dangerous," said Lt. Col. Doug Lipscombe, a squadron weather officer who flew into Ivan on Monday when it was gusting up to 200 mph just off Cuba.
The squadron's 10 WC-130 airplanes -- 96-foot behemoths weighing 155,000 pounds on takeoff -- are flying round the clock into Ivan to give forecasters at the National Hurricane Center the latest on the intensity and path of the hurricane.
"The C-130 is the pickup truck of aircrafts. It is built to do tough missions," Lipscombe, a veteran of over 140 flights into the vortex of a tropical system, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
The Hurricane Hunters' job is to rumble through a hurricane in a figure-four route, crisscrossing the eye, like a weather doctor taking the hurricane's pulse and temperature.
It has been likened to a bumpy ride through a car wash, but that doesn't begin to explain what it is like to venture into one of nature's most awesome phenomena.
Visibility is next to zero. Rain lashes the plane. Gusts knock it from side to side.
"You can't see where you're going, and we're flying basically on instruments," Lipscombe said.
On the horizon, a hurricane looks like a "very ominous, dark, beast," Lipscombe said. Inside the storm, darkness descends. But when it enters the eye, the very center of the hurricane, the plane flies from doom into brightness: clear skies during the day, twinkling stars at night. The winds drop to zero, the temperature spikes, all is calm.
"It is very much an ethereal sight, but it is very frightening," Lipscombe said. "While it may be pretty in the eye, it's going to be ugly on the ground."
Journalist Edward R. Murrow described Hurricane Edna's eye in 1954, this way: "In the eye of a hurricane, you learn things other than of a scientific nature. You feel the puniness of man and his works. If a true definition of humility is ever written, it might well be written in the eye of a hurricane."
For all the perils in flying into a hurricane, only one aircraft has gone down in a storm since the first WC-130s took off over 30 years ago, Lipscombe said.
"The Latin motto for our unit is pro bono publico, for the public good. And that is what we are doing," Lipscombe said.
More accurate forecasts can save money and lives.
"By giving them up-to-date information, we buy the National Hurricane Center and the local population time. It takes time to evacuate a coastline," Lipscombe said.