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Tracking Hurricane Irma from above with a flight crew from NOAA

Vapor escaping from Hurricane Irma forms clouds about 120 miles southeast of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. [HOWARD ALTMAN   |   Times]
Vapor escaping from Hurricane Irma forms clouds about 120 miles southeast of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. [HOWARD ALTMAN | Times]
Published Sep. 8, 2017

Ian Sears stands in the cavernous hangar of the new NOAA Aircraft Operations Center at the Lakeland-Linder Regional Airport and plots out the next ten hours of his life.

With Hurricane Irma blasting its way across the Caribbean and headed toward Florida, Sears is about to join eight other members of a crew helping predict just where the deadly storm would hit.

"Our mission tonight is to sample the subtropical ridge," said Sears, 35, of South Tampa. "That's the steering current that's going to push Hurricane Irma towards Florida."

To do so, Sears and other members of NOAA's hurricane hunting team will hop aboard a Gulfstream G-IV jet, nicknamed Gonzo, and fly above and around the massive hurricane.

It's a mission that will take the jet some 3,000 miles into the Atlantic Ocean then down to the Caribbean. They will rely on the science they gather, by dropping cylindrical devices called dropsondes into the water below, but there is a bit of hope involved, as well.

The men who will board this plane aren't just weather scientists on a mission for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. In addition to being pilots, meteorologists, engineers and data specialists, many are husbands and fathers with families. Like most others in Florida, they are nervously awaiting the storm.

"Maybe it will switch further to the east," Sears says with a glint of hope in his eyes. "Maybe it will nudge further to the east. We are really trying to home in on that forecast track."

•••

By 5:40 a.m. Friday, about four hours after takeoff, Gonzo, which has zigged and zagged about 300 miles into the Atlantic, is now flying about 42,000 feet over the Caribbean.

The jet is about 450 miles from Lakeland and about 150 miles away from Hurricane Irma's tight eye.

This flight is at a critical point.

Sears and pilot Doug MacIntyre are looking at a screen showing a satellite image of Irma. It is an enormous blotch encompassing much of the screen.

LIVE BLOG: Up to the minute storm reports from across Tampa Bay

On the south side of the storm, red splotches indicate immense cloud towers, meaning rough weather to fly near.

"That's gonna suck," Sears says.

The crew has a choice.

Continue circumnavigating the storm, a 1,100-mile journey, and release more dropsondes, or head east out of the danger if it gets too rough.

The two decide to push forward.

A great deal is at stake, Sears says.

This mission, he said, could be "very, very impactful" in helping determine where Irma is headed.

The plan is to deploy about 30 of the dropsondes, which fall for about 15 minutes each as they measure temperature, humidity, wind speed and barometric pressure. Their information is transmitted from the jet to super computers stateside and will be used to help predict the steering winds.

Meanwhile, as they work, the men think about their families left behind.

"Of course I'm worried," says Sears.

A resident of South Tampa, his home —where his wife and two boys, 5 and 8, are waiting — is in a flood zone.

"This is a very dangerous storm."

A short while later, as Gonzo reaches the northeast edge of Irma, the alarm sounds, "beep-boop," and the fasten seatbelt sign comes on.

The plane starts rocking.

It's time to buckle in.

Unlike NOAA's two slower, lower-flying WP-3 Orion turboprop planes, the G-IVs don't fly into storms so their bumps are nothing like what's experienced by those riding the Orion known as Kermit. Kermit took off about two hours after Gonzo.

After the work is done, the men engage in some dark humor.

"I'm thinking about my house," says flight director Paul Flaherty, pointing to a spot on the cone of probability where his Riverview address might be.

The mission is largely successful, with 24 of 29 of the dropsondes deploying as designed.

The results they were hoping for, however, do not materialize.

"It's definitely a very healthy hurricane still," Sears says. "There's a lot of pieces in place for it at least to maintain its current intensity. The waters are warm, there is very low windshear out there and there is good outflow. It's still a very healthy storm."

For Sears and the others, this means their work is only beginning. And like everyone else in Florida, they're left waiting for news from the National Hurricane Center.

"I am going to go home see my wife and two boys shortly," Sears says. "And figure out what our future plan is based on the new National Hurricane Center forecast that is about to come out in an hour, whether we ride it out or evacuate or whatever our preparations are going to be."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com. Follow @haltman

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