Several weeks ago, Rodney, Blake and I drove to the airport in Galveston for a hurricane awareness tour by officials from the National Hurricane Center. We interviewed Aggie graduate Bill Read, the director of the NHC. We also interviewed one of the center’s hurricane specialists, Eric Blake, who told us about a new instrument they will use this year to determine winds at the surface from the hurricane hunter aircraft. The device measures the speed that the foam is being whipped across the ocean’s surface, and that is more accurate than estimating the surface wind from the wind speed at flight level, usually between 5,000 and 10,000 feet.
We also interviewed Tom Strong, a pilot for the NHC who flies one of the center’s two P-3 hurricane hunter airplanes. And then we went onboard the aircraft for a tour. The plane has room for the crew and a number of scientists and observers, and it’s decked out with more high-tech equipment than you can imagine. This same plane had a close call almost twenty years ago in Hurricane Hugo in 1989 when it encountered extreme turbulence and winds in excess of 150 miles per hour. The plane lost control and was losing altitude rapidly until it was only 700 feet above the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. There’s even a dent still visible inside the aircraft from where computer equipment came loose and bounced around. Fortunately, no one was injured.
I’ve never been up in the sky in one of those P-3s, but I have flown into the eye of a hurricane, truly a life-long dream fulfilled. It was aboard one of the Air Force’s WC-130 reconnaissance planes in Hurricane Kate in November 1985. I was working at KFDM-TV in my hometown of Beaumont, and Kate had formed just south of western Cuba in the northwest Caribbean. I asked my news director if I could find out if it would be possible for us to get a news crew on one of the flights. Well, it was a late-season storm, and evidently TV stations were burned out from an already busy season. We were second on the list to fly out from Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi.
We packed our news unit and headed east the next morning on I-10 so that we could reach Biloxi by mid-afternoon. Between Lafayette and Baton Rouge there’s a bridge that’s ten or twenty miles long over the Atchafalaya Swamp. Guess where we had a blowout. I thought that God might be telling me something, but then I don’t think He was because we got the tire fixed and made it to our destination on time.
We underwent a briefing where we were shown how to evacuate the aircraft if we ended up in the Gulf of Mexico. We learned about the flight pattern through the storm called the Alpha Pattern, and we were shown procedures for collecting weather data inside the storm. Our flight was departing at 10:00 p.m., and before we boarded the plane, I went to the bathroom because there isn’t one on the plane, and we would be out there for twelve hours. I also took some Dramamine. I’m not prone to motion sickness, but I wasn’t about to take any chances and throw up during a life-long dream.
The flight was exciting to say the least, well, a little slow at times, but plenty going on with the plane bouncing around and reports coming from the weather officer that the winds outside the aircraft were 103 knots, close to 120 miles per hour. Then we got word that they were starting to move planes from Keesler because of the threat that Kate could hit Mississippi, and we were likely to fly from the hurricane to another base, either Homestead in Florida or Dyess in Abilene, Texas. That meant that we might not end up landing where our news unit was parked. Our last center fix in the eye was at daybreak, and we could see the foam on the surface of the gulf from the plane.
We flew from the eye of Hurricane Kate just north of western Cuba all the way to Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene. Here we were just a little more than a week before Thanksgiving, and although we had been flying in the tropics, it was clear and windy and 35 degrees in Abilene. And how were we supposed to get back to Beaumont with our news unit in Biloxi? We flew on a commuter plane from Abilene to Hobby Airport in Houston where a car and driver were waiting to take us home. I felt safer in that C-130 in the hurricane than I did on that little commuter plane. There’s just something about size that matters.
It was a life-long dream, and I had to promise my wife that I wouldn’t do it again. Of course, if something had happened to me back then, I would have been leaving her with two young children. She might let me do it again now.