ORLANDO, Fla. - Air Force Maj. Devon Meister says taking control of a Hurricane Hunter aircraft is thrilling work.
“It's actually not scary. There's a lot of turbulence, as you can imagine. Focus is on the instruments and the mission," she said.
Meister said her C-130-J plane is sturdy in a storm. But keeping that focus is crucial.
“Hurricanes are living, breathing organisms. Every time we fly through it, it’s at a different part of the life cycle. So we're always alert and make sure we try to stay away from the most dangerous parts of the storm," she said.
“You’re looking up at 30,000 feet of stadium clouds all around you. It’s awesome.”
Her commander, Col. Brian May, also loves his new job.
“I can look down and see the ocean churning and the power of that storm you can really feel it then.”
When it was time for May to face his first hurricane last year, his family needed certain assurances.
“The first time I was going to (be in the crew rest), my middle son was nervous. I told him, ‘I'll be fine,’” May said.
And his team was fine. They stayed safe even while taking on a Category 4 monster.
“Massive. I mean just massive. Matthew was a big boy,” May said.
When the hurricane center calls, his team has 16 hours to rest up and take off.
“We'll loiter in the storm, cutting through the eye for about six hours,” May said. “We'll get inside that eye, break out the other side, then we go all NASCAR on them. All left turns, then we do it again, (and) go through the eye four times.”
And each time, they gather data with a very special tool called a dropson.
“It goes into the eye of the storm, and then to us. That gives us the temperature, relative humidity, wind speeds and wind direction,” May said.
Weather officer Garrett Black is responsible for dropping those dropsons.
“I'm from Kansas originally. So, far away from hurricanes. But we had a lot of tornadoes and whatnot, so I've always been just excited about weather and the adventure of it,” Black said.
And Hurricane Matthew was an adventure and more for Black.
“It was the most notable experience that I've had so far. I don't know (if it was) frightening. It was really exciting,” he said.
The Hurricane Hunter that Meister, May and Black lead is one of several different types of huntersh.
Cmdr. Douglas Macintyre, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, leads a different type. The hunter Macintyre flies doesn’t fly through storms. He flies over and around them.
“We're able to get these cross sections of the storm over time and then, back on the ground, we are able to make a three-dimensional model of the storm,” Macintyre said. “This is the only tail Doppler radar on any Gulfstream jet.”
But despite the differences, the mission is the same.
“Absolutely. We are always learning every day. Every flight we land, we come back with new data for these scientists to look at and analyze and hopefully solve the hurricane puzzle,” Macintyre said.
Macintyre said the jet's mission is all about keeping you safe and saving time and money.
“Every mile of U.S coast that we have to evacuate, that's $1 million. So from 250 miles to 200 miles, that's a lot we've saved and a lot of unnecessary evacuations from folks that really need to get on the roads,” he said.
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