Riding with NOAA's Hurricane Hunters Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration take a flight thousands of feet above Hurricane Rita. These hurricane hunters gather unique data about the storm that allows meteorologists on the ground to get precise forecasts.

Riding with NOAA's Hurricane Hunters

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is away. I'm Steve Inskeep.

We'll begin this part of the program with a very close look at one of the most powerful storms on record. Meteorologists predict Hurricane Rita will continue on its westward path through the Gulf of Mexico turning slightly northward toward the Texas coastline. This forecast is determined, in part, from data sent from a small fleet of airplanes operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. NPR's Phillip Davis joined the hurricane hunters last night on a long flight aboard a NOAA research jet.

(Soundbite of airplane)

PHILLIP DAVIS reporting:

We're in a plane that NOAA's hurricane hunters have affectionately named the Gonzo. It's actually a sleek Gulfstream IV jet, capable of cruising at 530 miles an hour.

Mr. PAUL FLAHERTY (Meteorologist, Boston): It's a luxury jet, but they've removed the luxury.

DAVIS: That's Paul Flaherty, a meteorologist from Boston, who is the mission's flight director. He's proud of the Gonzo.

Mr. FLAHERTY: It's a nice aircraft, and it's a smooth ride, but most importantly, it does the job that we need it to do. It's filled with all kinds of scientific instruments and computers. As you can see, we have data workstations all up and down the aircraft.

DAVIS: And a crew of dedicated scientists in blue flight suits who are cramped in between all the equipment. Yesterday, Gonzo was stalking Hurricane Rita with its two Rolls-Royce twin spool turbo jet engines. The goal was to fly around the entire huge Category 5 storm, 3,500 miles, eight hours, circumnavigating the entire Gulf of Mexico. But it was just minutes after taking off from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa that the hurricane hunters first encounter Rita.

We're at 41,000 feet right now. We're just 60 miles from the eye of the storm, surrounded by a blindingly white wall of clouds. Not too much turbulence right now. We're high above the worst of the winds. The idea behind this flight is to fly above and around the storm, getting data that no one else can get.

Mr. NEAL DORST (Meteorologist, NOAA): We're flying over areas where there aren't any meteorological stations

DAVIS: Neal Dorst is a meteorologist from NOAA's Miami office. He's been flying into hurricanes and analyzing the data for the past 22 years.

Mr. DORST: This is going to be highly detailed data that can be fed into these computers and have an immediate improvement in the forecast. The hurricane specialists at the National Hurricane Center will probably be seeing the output of the models in time for the 11 PM update.

DAVIS: The researchers get the data by shooting something called a Global Positioning System Drop Wind Sonde out of the back of the Gulfstream.

(Soundbite of machinery)

DAVIS: Again, Paul Flaherty.

Mr. FLAHERTY: A GPS Drop Wind Sonde is an instrument that's about the size of a paper towel roll--at least the cardboard part of it, a little bit bigger, and it is on a drag chute, which keeps it stabilized and slows it, and what it does is it collects information at twice a second, which it sends back to the aircraft.

DAVIS: Information like altitude, barometric pressure, wind speed and wind direction from hundreds of different altitude points as the instrument cluster drifts slowly down to the warm waters under Rita. The data that comes back startles the crew. Rita's barometric pressure, an indication of how strong its winds can get, is already nearly as low as Hurricane Katrina's. But it's more than just numbers.

Mr. FLAHERTY: Because it--I don't want to say it becomes routine, but because we do it so often, we actually forget how important the data that we're sending back is. A perfect example of the result of what we're doing would be the forecasts for Hurricane Katrina.

DAVIS: In that case, new information from the hurricane hunters allowed officials to issue evacuation orders days before the storm hit. The flight seems to go on forever. We cruise over Cuba's Isle of Youth; then way west, all the way to the Yucatan Peninsula, within sight of Veracruz and Mexico. Heading into the hurricane from the west, you can see Rita's edge stretching like a knife from one end of the horizon to the other. The clouds outside the storm all seem to be bowing in Rita's direction. It's a sign of the hurricane's huge power, a power the hurricane hunters are hoping to blunt with information. Phillip Davis, NPR News, outside MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa.

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