What does the centre of a hurricane feel like at 1000 feet?

Talk of hurricane Irene conjured up memories of flying through hurricane Irene 12 years ago with the US Air Force. Here’s how it felt as published in YW 1999.


As the taxi pulled up at the traffic lights, my eyes caught a sign in the window of a funeral parlour.

‘Please take it easy and we’ll be happy to wait for you!’

I’m sure I would have laughed too liked the all the others who have pulled up alongside if I hadn’t been busier coping with a churning stomach, pounding heart and a racing mind. I could feel myself shaking inside. Was it excitement or nerves?

Perhaps I’d just read too much. According to some accounts of previous missions, turbulence beyond your wildest imagination and crippling G-forces lay before me aboard a mission that was to take 11 hours. What on earth had I set myself up for?

My taxi dropped me off at the gates of the Air Force base at Biloxi.
“Good luck, I’ll be waiting for you, just give me a call when you’re back.”
I’ve never wanted to be a taxi driver before, but for just one split second…..

Minutes later my escort, Michele Rivera, met me. Dressed in fatigues, she was smiling and relaxed as we shook hands and climbed into her car to drive to her headquarters. I tried to look brave and in control, yet frequently my twitching vocal chords seemed to let me down.
As we arrived and unloaded our bags, Michele pulled out a large polythene bag full of wool, patterns and needles.

“It’s a shawl for a friend’s wedding this weekend. With three teenage boys keeping me busy at home, it’ll be good to have 11 hours of peace and quiet to get on with it,” she said. I have rarely felt quite so stupid or dumbfounded. Now I really didn’t know what to expect.

It was 14:35 and in the briefing room, Lt Col. Smith ran through the mission with the crew.

“Today’s aircraft is 668 parked on bay 21. You have 65,000lbs of fuel and the plane’s sealed. Active runway is 21 and your mission duration will be a minimum of ten and a half hours.”

As he continued, I looked around at each of the six crew in the seats in front of me. They looked calm, organised and professional, each of them briefing the others in turn on their part in the mission. They’d all clearly done this many times before and for the first time in days my thoughts fell into place as the mission took on a real perspective. I now knew precisely what I felt – excitement.

Our take off time was due to be 16:30, but at 15:12 after our flight plan was logged and the weather briefing under way, our mission was cancelled. Hurricane Irene had struck land on Florida’s eastern shore.
“Once the hurricane is ashore there are so many other land based weather watchers and radar monitoring systems tracking the storm that we’re not needed,” explained Colonel Lipscombe, our weather officer for the aborted mission.

I had known for some time that this might be a problem. My only hope now was that Irene would cross Florida, drop off the western shore and have the National Hurricane Centre (NHC) requesting a further reconnaissance mission. But with the storm travelling at just 6mph, this looked unlikely in the 24 hours I had available before my flight left New Orleans to come back to the UK. I’d been planning this trip for over a year, watching and waiting. I felt sick and dejected.

At 22:45 the phone rang in my hotel room. I turned the volume down on the television which I’d had tuned to the Weather Channel all evening.
“It’s Michele. We’re on. Irene’s dropped off the coast and the NHC have requested that we go and investigate her ASAP. There’s a mission schedule at 1am which means I’d have to pick you up in 35 minutes. You want to do it?”

Thirty five minutes later we were whistling towards the gates of the base.
This time my heart pounded with excitement. All afternoon I’d watched Irene accelerate across Florida, not daring to believe that there might be a chance left to fly into her.

From the briefing room, into flight planning and on to the weather briefing, this at least all felt familiar and with a new but equally friendly and welcoming crew I was eager to get going.

In the humid Mississippi night air, I stood in front of the nose of our Hercules C130 as first two engines started. This was it, we really were going. Once again my stomach started to boil over in anticipation.
We boarded the plane where our dropsonde operator, Master Sergeant Burt Bussil, ran through the safety checks with me and handed me a set of yellow ear plugs.

“You wanna make sure you wear these all the time,” he said. “We got four big fans turnin’ and a burnin’ out there and 110 decibels in here.”
He turned to shut the door and we strapped ourselves in on the basic canvas bench seats. As I sat there buckled up, I felt like an over-eager Springer Spaniel, restrained by his leash in the back of a car as it drives through the countryside. My hands trembled and my head twitched like a cat’s does when chasing an imaginary fly as I looked around at the cavernous interior of the plane.

I just couldn’t take it all in. The thrill, the expectation and the unknown yet, bizarrely I felt at home. From the basic canvas, cushionless seats, with their lattice webbing backs, to the utilitarian military grey of the inner skin and frames of the plane’s structure, such basic practicalities felt so much like the inside of an offshore racing boat.
My eye caught a sign on a square box type structure in the middle of the plane, ‘Gentlemen, you are invited to try one of our urinals located at the rear of the aircraft.’

My eyes swung right. At the back of the plane, past the massive cylindrical tank that is the reserve fuel canister, hung a makeshift curtain screening a simple bucket and drain. Mounted up towards the ceiling were two simple bunks like pilot berths, with basic square foam mattresses under which hung basic safety gear from lifejackets to oxygen masks. Yep, I felt at home.

At 0111 we thundered down the 7000ft runway and rotated into the night sky – we were off.

Our mission was to make contact with Irene, measure her characteristics and mark her centre. With the storm capable of inflicting yet more damage along America’s eastern seaboard, it was important to let the NHC know what was developing and quickly. In particular, the NHC needed to know whether to alter Irene’s status from a hurricane to a tropical storm while also requiring sufficient live data to predict it’s likely path.
Our planned track took us out of the Biloxi base and due east at 18,500 ft to Jacksonville where we would turn south east and follow the shoreline to find Irene while descending to 5000ft, our mission penetration height.
Shortly after take off I was kitted up with a headset and invited up onto the flight deck where I was greeted by our friendly five man crew, (the dropsonde officer is the sixth and who releases and monitors the digital transponders that are dropped from the plane to measure various details about the airmass below, is seated at the back of the plane), turned from the soft and colourful glow of the banks of instruments that surrounded them, to welcome me aboard.

Our flight deck crew consisted of two pilots, Captain James (Nickels) Dignan and Major Tony (Bear) Anderson, a flight engineer, Technical Sergeant Steve Jones, a navigator, Major John Fox and our weather officer, Major Eric Dutton. Our flight also had a reserve pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Floyd Plash, who alternated with the two on the flight deck doing spells at the stick, just as you might on an offshore racer.

As we cruised down the Florida coast the crew chatted about everything from the worst hurricanes they’d each been in, (you would have thought with the number of missions they’ve flown that they’d be bored with this), to what to do with your pets in a hurricane! The banter was easy going, friendly, relaxing and to me, completely surreal given that we were about to bowl headlong into one of the fiercest types of storm that you can find.

It was 0250 and the crew ran through their storm briefing checks as we approach Irene. The surreal conditions and the deep sense of security that this friendly and chatty crew had lured me into, had momentarily made me feel so at home that I was beginning to take it all into my stride. But not for long.

At 0315 the hunt began. We descended to 5,000ft and were off Cape Canaveral. Our navigator had spotted some disturbances ahead on his radar screen and was talking them though with the pilots when Nickels turned to me.

“It’s gonna get a touch bumpy, but I’m happy for you to stay up here with us if you want to, just make sure you hold on. If it gets too rough you might have to go back and strap in.”
I was over the moon.

Our Herc shook as if driving over a few cobbles. There were a few lumps in between, and then wallop! We suddenly dropped as if slapped by an almighty hand.

“We’ve got 65 knots windspeed form 064,” said Eric Dutton the weather officer.

The turbulence increased and my grip tightened on the grab handle on the back of the flight engineer’s seat.

“We’re still a bit off ‘Yikes!’ yet,” replied navigator John Fox.
We were really bucking around now. It was like driving a RIB through the Alderney race at night with your eyes shut as we piled into massive invisible undercurrents and eddies of tumbling air. At times the plane felt like she’d flown into a rubber wall, at others a wing dropped and Nickels surged the throttles to prevent us stalling.

“Watch your speed,” called Bear.
“Got it”, came the reply.

By now the combination of a few cups of strong coffee and the sudden realisation that I was playing with the big boys, had my heart pounding through my shirt.

“One of the great things about hurricanes is that it sure clears the airspace,” joked Nickels as we bowled headlong through the impenetrable darkness. Then suddenly all went smooth.

“Hey Matt, there you go. Come here, there’s the eye at 9 O’clock see it?”, called Bear.

Lit by the moon, the curved wall of cloud clearly marked out part of the rotation and although it was too dark to see down to sea level, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I’d seen one, I couldn’t believe it. How many people got to see this?

“Our max windspeed there was 88knots,” confirmed Eric. “That makes Irene a Hurricane so it’s plenty of pennies (penetrations) tonight boys.”
As we flew down track, Eric monitored the conditions inside the eye and called out the ever decreasing wind speed and direction. Everyone went quiet.

“10 knots at 053 degrees.”
“5 knots.”
“Half a knot and looking for the switch [the change in wind direction that marks the centre]”
“Got it,” replied navigator John.

Gradually the on deck conversation returned to idle chatter with accounts of other hurricanes, why it’s safer to be up here than down there, to yet more advice on pet safety.

Normally these missions would fly an ‘alpha pattern’, a sort of cross shape through the hurricane with individual approaches to the centre of 105 miles, from which they can record the hurricane’s characteristics from each of its four corners. This also means that they penetrate the eye four times and pass through the eye wall eight times. On our mission, the hurricane was too close to land to perform this precise pattern, so our path was more of a triangular pattern but still resulted in four penetrations.

By 0408 we’d passed through the eye wall again and reached the bottom of leg two where our track turned through 45 degrees and headed north.
Twenty minutes later and the navigator and pilots talked frequently as we threaded through some developing thunderstorms.

“Take ten right,” called John Fox.
“Got it,” replies Nickels.
“Take another ten to the right,” called Fox again, a few seconds later.
Lightening started to flare up around us and on the radar screen we could see nasty black blotches on the screen marking the fiercest part of the thunder storms.

“Gonna have to take another twenty just to be sure,” announced Fox, “this thing’s growing in front of us.”

At 0427 sharp flashes were all over us and the turbulence had built again. Rain streamed off the windscreen in rivers. I felt like I was in some fifties Hollywood movie until a really big crack and dazzling flash lit up the cockpit. This was no movie, this was for real.

We turned left for leg 4, a path that would lead us back into the centre of the hurricane. But to do so meant running back into the line of thunderstorms that we’d just come through.

At 0523 we passed through the eye wall for the third time but on this occasion it was a much quieter affair and the maximum windspeed that we recorded was around 50knots.

Having completed the triangle and found the centre again, our weather man confirmed that Irene had moved at 11knots and was tracking 020 degrees.

Once again we passed out through the opposite side of the eye wall and by 0540 I had decided to go below for a sit down. You can only ride the flight deck like a bus conductor for so long – and that’s about 4 hours for my back. I went down below to my canvas seat and watched the dawn break to reveal the stormy looking clouds that had been throwing us around all night.

The weather looked ugly and the sea below looked worse.
At 0720 I woke up, my lap harness taught across my abdomen. The plane lurched violently to one side. First the wing dropped and then the nose, followed closely by a drop in the noise of the engines as we corkscrewed down towards the foaming waves beneath.

“Looks like Floyd’s taking us off road again,” joked the crew over the intercom as our reserve pilot wrestled with the controls.
This was a big one and after punching the eye wall for what felt like minutes, we emerged once more into the tranquil eye and weaved our way forwards to find and mark the centre.
And so it went on, with frequent ‘dirt road’ warnings as we approached the turbulent sectors.

Our last penny was at 0925, a modest affair recording just 50knots at 041 degrees after which we climbed to 20,000ft and headed for home having burnt 50,000lbs of fuel in a flight that had lasted ten and a half hours.

In that time I had become accustomed to the violent lurchings of a Category 1 hurricane and could barely imagine what it would be like to fly Floyd or Mitch, two of the storms our crew frequently referred to as among the worst they’ve been in.

“When the turbulence is so wild that you need three of you to handle the plane and the instruments are being shaken around so much that the needles just wobble in front of your eyes, you know you’re just along for the ride,” said Nickels.

As I sat in New Orleans airport waiting for my flight home, just hours after landing, I celebrated with a beer in the nearest bar. My head was spinning, my movements as unstable as a first time sailor whose back on terra firma. I dared not try to walk for fear of being accused of being intoxicated and refused entry onto the plane.

But all I really wanted to do was to hear our Captain announce that we should all return to our seats and fasten our belts as there was some turbulence ahead. It would have been all I could do to hold back the giggles. Instead I simply fell asleep.

Hurricane Hunters – 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron