MICHELE NORRIS, host:
NPR's Philip Davis spent the day on an airplane over the Gulf of Mexico, along with researchers who are measuring the strength of Hurricane Rita. He joined us earlier from the airplane.
PHILIP DAVIS reporting:
Right now we're about 41,000 feet up, traveling at about 460 knots--that's about 530 miles an hour--coming in east from the Yucatan Peninsula. We're about 60 miles out from the eye of Hurricane Rita. We're flying through--over the cloud tops right now, and looking out the window, you can actually see some of the feeder bands on the western side of the storm.
NORRIS: So you can actually see the feeder bands. You're pretty close there to the hurricane. What exactly is the mission? What do they hope to achieve?
DAVIS: Well, what we're going to do--this is a nine-hour flight today with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. They have these hurricane research planes. We are going to circumnavigate the entire storm. We started out this morning on its eastern side, headed down toward Cuba and the Island of Youth, headed up over the Yucatan Peninsula and now we're heading north and, again, east again.
Every 15 minutes or so, the meteorologists here drop an instrument package called a drop wind sonde that floats down into the storm on a parachute. It takes about 12, 15 minutes to go all the way down to the ocean surface. And as it goes down, it takes a variety of different readings, like air pressure, wind readings, humidity readings, atmospheric pressure readings and broadcasts all that data right back the to plane in real time.
NORRIS: So they're able to make all these calculations right there on the plane. They don't sent this information back to a center onshore.
DAVIS: Well, the readings come in right to the plane, and then they send them back to the National Hurricane Center, where the data is fed immediately into the models they use to predict where the storm this going to be going. So when we start hearing later on tonight, some of the information that we're getting from the airplane right now is going to be used for the latest updates and for the most accurate information as to what Rita is going to be doing.
NORRIS: Well, speaking of updates, the hurricane has now been updated to a Category 5. Is that evident from your position there on the plane?
DAVIS: Yes. It's incredible, this storm. The data that we're getting right now shows that air pressure is dropping down to about 900 millibars. And without getting too technical about it all, that's getting very close to Katrina's territory. Katrina got down to about 902 millibars, so it's in Katrina territory already and the record is getting down to about 800. Basically, when you get down around 900 and below that, the pressure gradient means that the winds get stronger and stronger, and they've already clocked the winds over 150 miles an hour.
NORRIS: Philip, what are they learning about the track or the trajectory of the storm?
DAVIS: The trajectory still looks like the storm is heading in a pretty straight westerly direction, so the meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center say that their latest models show that it may start trending a little bit toward the north. But at this point, it's still heading pretty much in a west direction.
NORRIS: Philip, what's it like to fly on that plane?
DAVIS: Well, it's interesting. This is a--we're in the fastest and highest-flying of all the NOAA hurricane planes. It's a Gulfstream 4 research jet that's packed with instrumentation. And we're flying up above the clouds, so right now it's a little bit bumpy. We're looking down at the cloud tops, but it's a little bit smoother than you might think. As we get closer into the eye of the storm, the cloud cover gets thicker and thicker and we basically have to fly on instrumentation, on radar. But the pilots are used to doing that, and it's been a pretty smooth flight so far.
NORRIS: All right. NPR's Philip Davis, thank you.
DAVIS: Thanks a lot.
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