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Friday, July 14, 2006

Hurricane Hunters, NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Air Operations Center at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa serves as home to The Hurricane Hunters. The air group provides life saving, real time information on the formation and progress of earth's deadliest storms. However, the AOC's year round mission as NOAA's air platform for gathering vital data on weather, ocean resources and the atmosphere may be our best tool yet in the quest to understand the environment.

At 9 AM, it is already a steamy 93 degrees as we approach the main gate to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. The sky is bright and clear betraying no hint of severe thunderstorms approaching from the west – but you know they’re there all the same. This is hurricane season and storms rising daily over the Gulf are a constant reminder that hurricanes are our perennial companions.

We are met by Lori Bast from Public Affairs, NOAA – the Hurricane Hunters. She quickly guides us through security and leads our small caravan into the city within a city that the base has become since taking on the role of U.S. Central Command. Our destination is a hanger marked Aircraft Operations Center (satellite image). The hanger building is parked inconspicuously among a half dozen other hangers along the concrete apron bordering the base’s interlace of runways. We are here to meet Dr. James McFadden Chief of Programs & Projects Staff for NOAA and a few of his charges: Kermit, Miss Piggy and Gonzo.

Originally designated as the Research Flight Facility (RFF), the group began operations in 1961 in Miami conducting weather studies and gathering information about atmospheric conditions for the U.S. Weather Bureau's National Hurricane Research Project. One project, early on, was called Operation Stormfury, an attempt to determine if a hurricane’s destructive energy could be somehow modified by controlled cloud seeding.

In 1970, President Nixon proposed unifying several branches of earth science studies under one umbrella and assigned it the designation National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration under the Department of Commerce and NOAA was born. Data gathered by NOAA’s five line offices each responsible for a different research venue is shared with other government agencies, research communities, private industry and the public. NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center moved to MacDill AFB in 1993. The AOC provides the aircraft platform from which NOAA conducts its various studies.

To the public much of what NOAA does on a day-to-day basis is lost in the glare of the “Hurricane Hunter” missions. Part of the reason the public focuses so intensely on the hurricane flights themselves Dr. McFadden observed, is that, “people notice weather, they don’t notice climate”. These dramatic flights above and into the eye of the storm provide dynamic data streams of information from which weather forecasters can predict a storm’s strength, growth potential and probable track to landfall. This vital service saves lives and property and has become, over the years, the most visible aspect of NOAA operations. I asked Dr. McFadden if he would describe some of the other missions the Aircraft Operations Center enables throughout the year.

NOAA, he told us, flies a variety of environmental missions designed to support science studies such as marine resources surveys for the National Marine Fisheries Service, monitoring coastal erosion, annual changes in snow pack levels, which aid in predicting spring flooding from melt runoff and winter storm research in the Pacific. The AOC may partner with other agencies as they did recently when they joined with NESDIS, the National Satellite, Data and Information Service, flying low-level flight instrumentation checks to help calibrate GPS mapping coordination of their satellite imagery. NESDIS satellite imaging provides global environmental data to scientists and government agencies, which in turn is used in a variety of studies designed to enhance our understanding of weather, natural resources and the environment.

The men and women who comprise the AOC come from many different backgrounds. Some are scientists, or engineers; some are flight officers, mathematicians or aircraft mechanics; civilian or NOAA Corp, which, Dr. McFadden explained, is the seventh uniformed service of the United States. The Corp can trace its origins back to the establishment of the Survey of the Coast by Thomas Jefferson in 1807. Like the Coast Guard, the Uniformed Corp of NOAA maintains an organizational identity similar to the military and works in close association with their civilian counterparts. For more information about the NOAA Corp, visit their web site at NOAA Marine and Aviation Operations (NMAO.)

Standing inside the Hurricane Hunter’s cavernous hanger, one can not resist the impression that regardless their training or service specialty the one thing that motivates this team of specialists as much as their dedication to the science of weather is the presence of their teammates and partners, the most visible element of their organization, the aircraft themselves. Earlier we mentioned Kermit, Miss Piggy and Gonzo, names certainly familiar to generations of America children and the respective designated names of 2 giant Lockheed WP-3D Orion aircraft and a sleek, high flying Gulfstream G-IV SP. Next week we’ll take you aboard Kermit and explain how the Hurricane Hunters reveal the nature of these violent storms.

By Harlan Weikle
Greener Magazine

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