Working 100 hours a week and loving it!

Sim Aberson - NOAA/OAR/AOML
Research Meteorologist

  The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has three aircraft that are used for hurricanes. Two are rather large propeller aircraft that have been used since 1977 to fly into hurricanes, and they are called P3s. The P3s have a lot of instruments on them that measure everything from the wind and temperature to the kinds of ice and water particles in the clouds, and can also measure the sizes of the waves on the ocean surface, the temperature of the ocean on the surface and even hundreds of feet down. (You can see the P-3's in action in the LFSTORM videos, and get a "tour", up close and personal from NOAA Corps flight engineer Carlos Pradas here online.) The other plane is a newer jet known as the G-IV which mainly flies around hurricanes dropping "sondes," instruments that measure the winds and temperatures on their way down to the ocean floor. We can only forecast hurricanes in the future when we know what they are currently doing, so the measurements are sent from the plane to the National Weather Service Supercomputer in Maryland which runs the computer models that help us forecast the storms.

   My own research involves figuring out where we need to drop the sondes to improve the forecasts. So, when a hurricane is threatening the United States, I draw the flight tracks for the G-IV, and sometimes for one or both of the P3s, and frequently also fly in one of the planes to make sure the mission is going slowly. Hurricane forecasts when we fly these missions are 25% more accurate than when we do not fly them, so they are very important in deciding whom to warn when the hurricane makes landfall.

   Because we are dropping the instruments out of the airplane, we need to plan the missions the day before they actually happen so that we can make sure other airplanes that cross the Atlantic Ocean are not flying below us. We don't want to hit any other planes to make them crash!

   So, the day before a mission, at around 7:30 in the morning, we have a weather briefing in which all the scientists discuss what we want to do that day and the next. If we decide that my mission is to be done, I need to get the latest computer forecasts so that I can decide where we will want to fly the next day. The G-IV does not fly into the hurricane, but around it, but the P3s can fly into the storm. If we decide to use all three airplanes, I need to draw three flight tracks pinpointing exactly where we want to drop the sondes. By 10 in the morning, I need to decide where the three planes are going to take off and land, and make sure that the people will be in the right place to fly the missions. Sometimes, we have just a few hours of notice that we have to travel to where our airplanes are so we can fly the next day. By noon, whether I am travelling or not, I need to have the flight tracks finalized so that the Federal Aviation Administration can make sure that any other airplanes are kept safely out of the area.

   The day of each mission is more exciting, especially since we sometimes have a mission planned for the next day. So, not only do I need to do the same thing I just described, but I need to make sure all the plans for today's mission are going as scheduled. By about 11 in the morning, I need to get to wherever the airplane is located with the current day's flight tracks and the next day's. If the other planes are at different airports, I also need to make sure that all the flight tracks and people get to their respective aircraft. The pilots of each plane need to be briefed on the mission (the track, what we are doing during each part of the mission, etc.), and they need to file their flight plans with the Federal Aviation Administration.

   By about 12:30 pm, we get onto the plane to make sure that all the instruments work and everything is set up properly. We usually take off around 1:30 pm and land nine or ten hours later. These are very long flights in small aircraft, and the flights can frequently be tiring. Most flights are relatively smooth, just like a regular airline flight, but every so often, we get bumped around a bit, and once when I was flying, we even fell so fast that everything on the plane that wasn't tied down floated for a few seconds.

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