Hurricane Hunters: In the Eye of the Storm

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," Sept. 16, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Hurricane hunters flying into the eye of the storm, collecting the information that forecasters on the ground use to predict hurricane movement. Now that Hurricane Ivan (search) has been downgraded to a tropical storm, they're shifting their focus to Hurricane Jeanne (search).

Lieutenant Commander Barry Choy is a hurricane hunter. He just returned last night from hunting Ivan. He's assigned to the Aircraft Operations Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (search).

So, Commander, you went into Ivan last night. Tell me about it.

BARRY CHOY, LIEUTENANT COMMANDER, NOAA AIRCRAFT OPS CENTER: Oh, Ivan last night was a weaker storm than we saw earlier in the week. It was the strongest convection was to the northwest. And the eye wall to the northwest was pretty intense. The southern section, the eye wall was generally nonexistent. We were able to see into the eye from pretty far out.

GIBSON: When you went through that part of the eye wall, I think you said it was on the northwest that was rough. I mean, how rough? We've all been in planes that go through turbulence. What does it feel like? What do you hear inside the plane?

CHOY: Well, you hear a variety of things. First of all, up in the flight station you're listening to the ICS System so you can hear the scientific complement actually making the drops. They drop sans into the eye wall. You also hear the engines making a lot of strange sounds because the props are trying to keep up and maintain on-speed.

The turbulence in the eye wall itself is severe. You can categorize it as severe.

GIBSON: Have you ever — well, could you sort of rate what you experienced last night? I mean, what we're hearing about this particular storm on the ground it was as bad as any. How would you rate it flying into it?

CHOY: Well, every storm is different and this particular storm at different stages had different levels of convection. And the northwest sidewall, I would say...

GIBSON: What do you mean by convection by the way, Commander?

CHOY: Convection meaning the severest thunderstorms. And the northwest eye wall was probably among the severest we've seen and some of the bumps and hits that we took in that northwest eye wall was right up there with what we saw in Frances and Ivan earlier, when it was a cat five.

GIBSON: You flew it when it was a cat five?

CHOY: Yes I did.

GIBSON: Now, how'd that differ from last night?

CHOY: Well, actually, when it was a cat five, it was certainly a smoother storm. You can never really tell just by the category of the storm how bad your ride is going to be. Sometimes the less intense storms give you a lot harder ride than a well organized, very strong, intense category five storms.

GIBSON: Did it surprise you much at morning light to see the damage on the ground?

CHOY: Well, I really haven't had a chance to see all the news reports of the damage on the ground. For us up in the air, we generally stay offshore; we do not like to fly to storms once they move onshore because of the intense convection. And it gets a lot more dangerous: you get tornadoes and things of that nature.

GIBSON: Did it surprise you that — maybe you don't know this, that there were at least a couple of tornadoes to the east on the Pensacola side, and that's what ended up killing people. Did this storm surprise you that it was able to produce those sorts of things?

CHOY: No, it's not surprising at all. Any hurricane — and even tropical storms — can produce tornadic damage, especially out in the rain bands. You get intense thunderstorms, there's a lot of sheer present, instability. You can definitely have tornadoes. We've seen it with Andrew; seen it with just about every tropical system.

GIBSON: Hey, Commander, you know, it busts up so much stuff on the ground. How come it doesn't break your plane?

CHOY: Well, our planes are actually in maintenance today and tomorrow. We do experience a little bit of damage, but not from what you'd think. The plane generally handles the wind fairly well and all the turbulence. What actually gets us is the intense amount of rain.

The rain acts almost like a sandblaster, and it feel peels the paint off the leading edges of the vertical stabilizer and actually the wing leading edges. It peels the paint off, so those have to be touched up or taped up for us to be able to go back into the storm again.

GIBSON: All right. Lieutenant Commander Barry Choy in there, in the storms; a hurricane hunter.

Commander, thanks very much. Appreciate you coming on.

CHOY: You're welcome.

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