Hurricane Michael: Research plane sends grim data. Panhandle is in ‘for a world of trouble’

Published October 9 2018
Updated October 10 2018

OVER THE GULF OF MEXICO — About 90 minutes into their flight to help determine the intensity of Hurricane Michael, a crew from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration received a communication from hurricane researchers back on land.

NOAA Lt. Cmdr. Dave Cowan, the jet’s pilot, relayed the message: "We have a bit of a surprise."

Officials wanted the twin-engine Gulfstream IV jet, nicknamed Gonzo for the Sesame Street character, to fly closer than planned at the massive storm. Data gathered already during the flight had shown patches of dry air about 300 miles from the storm.

If the drier air made its way into the core of the storm, it might help stop Michael’s rapid intensification.

So shortly after 5 p.m., Gonzo, flying at about 45,000 feet, began flying in a hexagonal pattern about 60 miles from the center of the storm’s eyewall. The aircraft began to bounce a bit with the increasing turbulence.

Soon, they got the data they needed. But it dashed any hope that the storm would relent.

"What we learned was basically bad news for folks who live in the Florida panhandle along the cost," flight director Rich Henning said, after Gonzo returned to its home base at the NOAA Air Operations Center in Lakeland.

RELATED: The latest from Hurricane Michael, from the Panhandle and across Tampa Bay

The findings from the Tuesday flight held true overnight and into Wednesday morning, when the 4 a.m. advisory from the National Hurricane Center started with these ominous words: "Extremely dangerous Category 4 Michael strengthens further as it heads north toward the Florida Panhandle."

A Category 4 storm carries winds of 130 mph to 156 mph.

"We didn’t find anything that was making the storm weaker," Henning said. "If it goes through enough intensification, it could make landfall as a Category 4 storm. But even if it doesn’t, it is still a really bad storm"

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Right on schedule, Gonzo lifted off from the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday for a planned 5 1/2-hour flight that would take the crew on a 2,400-mile journey in a star-shaped pattern all around the storm.

Unlike other NOAA planes based Lakeland — two propeller-driven WP-3 Orions nicknamed Kermit and Miss Piggy — the Gulfstream-IV is designed to fly around and above storms. It serves as a bridge between satellites in orbit and planes like the Orions that fly lower and directly into storms.

Flying on behalf of the Hurricane Research Center, Gonzo was on a dual mission Tuesday. It was helping gather data about the storm’s intensity for use in current projections while doing research to help guide future efforts, said NOAA research meteorologist John Kaplan.

Michael has perplexed researchers, Kaplan said, because it intensified despite being buffeting by winds that can tear apart such cyclonic systems.

So NOAA researchers spent a lot of time during the Tuesday flight gathering information on the environment that allowed the strengthening to occur, with an eye toward future predictions, Kaplan said.

PHOTOS: NOAA's Gulfstream IV jet flew a 2,400 mile 5.5 hour mission at 45,000 ft. around Hurricane Michael

To do that, researchers dropped 28 dropsondes — cardboard tubes packed with instruments — out of a pipe in the back of the aircraft.

At 45,000 feet, the dropsondes take about 16 minutes to hit the water, transmitting data along the way about air pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed, and wind direction. The data helps determine how strong a storm is and where it is likely headed.

Shortly before 2 p.m., NOAA electronics technician James Warnecke placed the first of the dropsondes into its chute and with a whoosh, it hurtled toward the gulf below.

"The data we collect will affect tens of millions of people," Warnecke said. "But I’m not the one who saved the world. We are just pieces in the cog."

Before the dropsonde fizzles out in the water, flight directors Henning and Jack Parrish, sitting next to one other in the plane, analyze the information. Then they send off a short synopsis to researchers at the National Hurricane Center developing the forecast models.

•••

Another of the tools used by researchers aboard the Gonzo malfunctioned during the flight, diminishing their ability to determine the direction and speed of the storm’s wind. But the failure of the radar system wasn’t critical because Kermit from Lakeland and a propeller driver C-130 Hercules from Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi were also in the air gathering data.

Last year, a critical issue did arise aboard the Gulfstream IV.

While flying a mission to Hurricane Maria, the cabin door became dislodged and the crew had to fly back to Lakeland wearing oxygen masks.

NOAA Cmdr. Brad Fritzler, co-pilot on the Tuesday flight, was co-pilot on that flight, as well.

"The cabin door was an interesting situation," Fritzler said. "The biggest problem was the noise. The aircraft never depressurized, but the door wasn’t seated right, it was still ajar, and it was creating a lot of noise as the air passed through."

Crew members had to don masks, but their biggest challenge was hearing one another and communications from the ground, Fritzler said.

The jet was about 600 miles east of South Carolina at the time and couldn’t fly lower because of rough weather below, so the crew toughed it out and flew all the way back to Lakeland. The problem corrected itself as cabin pressure fell during their descent, Fritzler said.

"It was never hairy," he said.

After the incident, the Washington Post reported this was the third time Gonzo had experienced problems in eight days during the 2017 storm season.

Fritzler said the door seal was replaced and "everything has been fine ever since."

•••

The mission to Michael was a success, said Parrish, the flight director. All the dropsondes worked and a lot of usable data was gathered.

But back on the ground, the results of what the mission revealed began to sink in.

People living in the Panhandle "are in for a real world of trouble," Henning said. "This storm is actually going to make a direct hit while it is in the process of intensifying. Other storms came on shore as they were weakening. The potential for damage is really bad. Not only on the coast, but because of very high winds inland, Tallahassee."

Helping warn people in times like these makes the danger of flying into storms worth it, he said.

"Because of the data we are gathering, as long as people listen and the warning are issued, it will help save lives."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman

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