How Hurricane Hunters Help Save Lives

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, September 15, 2003, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: When there's news of a hurricane heading your way, most sane people run in the opposite direction. Not so if you're a hurricane hunter (search). This special breed of person flies straight into the storm.

Joining me now at Kessler Air Force Base (search) in Biloxi, Mississippi is Capt. Chad Gibson, no relation that I know. Captain Gibson is attached to the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (search).

Captain, that is today's big question — why would anyone want to fly into a hurricane?

CAPT. CHAD GIBSON, USAF 53D WEATHER RECON SQUAD: Well, that is the $1 million question, John. The point is, we save lives. That is the entire mission of the Air Force Reserves for the hurricane hunters… we're a humanitarian mission. The data we collect directly increases the accuracy of the hurricane center forecasters by up to 30 percent to even 40 percent sometimes. And that results in people evacuating and saving lives at the end of the game.

GIBSON: You got that thing in your hand. That's one of those devices that you drop and sends back information on the force of the winds and so forth, right?

C. GIBSON: That's correct. It's one of the many instruments we use on board the WC-130… What we do is release [one of these tools] out the back end of the aircraft, and it falls around 2,000, 2500 feet per minute and continuously reads back information [on the storm] back to the aircraft. And this information is much like what you see on your current conditions of a weather report, like temperature, dew point and pressure and winds. We'll release this in the eye wall itself to see the max winds that we see in the storm. Also, in the stirrup - the eye of the storm, where we see the minimum pressure, the lower it is, obviously the stronger the storm will be.

Now we release often times — once in the eye wall, once in the eye, and then again in the eye wall itself. It's one of the many things we do. The meteorologists on board will take this data and send it directly to the hurricane center forecasters via satellite communications. And all that we do on that, we're taking observations in a 30-mile circumference of the aircraft and also with vortex data message. That's basically saying where the center of the eye is and all details about the eye. We're sending that via satellite communications to the hurricane center forecasters as well as our opinions.

GIBSON: Captain Gibson, I think we all know sort of anecdotally that the eye is calm. But the ride into the eye is not calm.

C. GIBSON: It can be very turbulent.

GIBSON: We're looking at the airplane behind you. Compare it to what we all know. When you're on a commercial airplane and you fly through a storm, you bounce around a little bit. Is it way more or about the same?

C. GIBSON: Well, it's about the same. The biggest difference you're going to see, John, is that the planes you typically fly, let's say from New York to L.A. are going to be jets. And what this is is a propeller driven aircraft, a turboprop. And it's very critical that we change our air speeds within the storm so we can correct for any downdrafts or downbursts or front thunderstorms within the hurricane.

Within the hurricane, you can have up to even 100 tornadoes within that hurricane. We have to avoid that weather and we have to correct and get to the center of the eye as well. Monitoring severe turbulence is not uncommon in strong storms such as Isabel. When you're flying Delta or any other airline, you want to stay away from that turbulence. You're at 35,000 feet. When we fly into a hurricane, we're at 10,000 feet.

GIBSON: All right, now captain, you're obviously a Delta pilot. But in addition, we all know this thing that you're flying along… suddenly there is a big drop, as you say, you hit one of these little zones and you take a big hit. How do those compare? Aren't you being buffeted hundreds of feet up, hundreds of feet down constantly?

C. GIBSON: There's some of the storms that it's more so. There was a hurricane last year where our aircraft dropped very rapidly even to 5,000 feet… [to the point] where things are floating in the air.

I know the meteorologists on board that aircraft reported it to me, he saw his notebook where we were taking notes about the storm floating in the air in front of him before they regained control where they could continue flying to rise back up. So it can be very bumpy and it is not the elevator feeling that you typically fear in a commercial aircraft. It is very rapid and intense drops and rises.

GIBSON: And you don't worry about that plane holding together?

C. GIBSON: Not at all. The C-130 is one of the most industrious airplanes ever built… they were typically built from 1960 to 1965. So these planes have been working hard for us a long time and have held up a very strong safety record.

GIBSON: Capt. Chad Gibson, I can see what they are going to do when they needs a new Gibson around here, they are going to go get you.

C. GIBSON: That's right.

GIBSON: Captain, thanks very much. I sure appreciate it.

C. GIBSON: Thank you.

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