NOAA grounded its hurricane-hunting planes as Idalia hit Florida

As Hurricane Idalia rapidly approached Florida’s Big Bend region early Wednesday morning, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had to ground its last remaining “hurricane hunter” plane due to a generator failure.

Dubbed Miss Piggy, the plane is one of three aircraft operated by NOAA that can collect storm data essential to forecasters. In the 24 hours before Idalia slammed into Florida, it was the only NOAA-operated aircraft available to provide the federal agency’s National Hurricane Center with data on the storm, according to one former senior NOAA official and one current employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the issue’s sensitivity.

Asked about the matter Wednesday, NOAA confirmed the plane’s technical problems.

The two other planes were undergoing repairs. After days of flying into Idalia, Miss Piggy, too, was sidelined — unable to carry out the early-morning flight requested by the Hurricane Center as the storm was set to make landfall. Instead, an Air Force plane that had also been asked to fly provided data on the storm, two current employees said.

The planes’ troubles have raised concerns about the availability of one key forecasting tool ahead of what’s shaping up to be an active hurricane season. While the Hurricane Center has other ways of gathering information, experts say forecasters rely heavily on these planes for data that helps inform watches, warnings and evacuation decisions.

In addition to the flights, NOAA said it used a variety of tools to track Idalia’s path toward Florida, including satellites and the National Weather Service’s network of radars. “NOAA has numerous observing platforms on and in the ocean this season,” said Scott Smullen, an agency spokesman.

It’s still unclear whether the Hurricane Center’s forecast suffered for having only one NOAA plane flying into Idalia as it advanced toward shore. Some experts noted that predictions about the system’s path have been accurate, and flying planes is less important as storms near shore, where they can be tracked by ground-based radars. But had the planes been unavailable earlier, it could have hurt the accuracy of forecasts, they said.

“It’s like a World Cup soccer game, and you have one goalie, and you play him every moment of every game,” one of the current NOAA officials said. “It’s a very high risk that he gets hurt, and the impact when he does that — you lose the World Cup.”

Aside from Miss Piggy, NOAA operates another Lockheed WP-3D Orion called Kermit and a Gulfstream IV-SP named Gonzo.

The Lockheed planes, known as P-3s, punch through the eyewalls of hurricanes to gather the data forecasters need to make accurate predictions about the intensity and trajectory of hurricanes.

“They’re made to fly through nasty weather, and fly really low and be very rugged,” said Mark Luther, an oceanographer at the University of South Florida. “They’re very sturdy aircraft.”

To paint a picture of a storm, scientists aboard the planes drop probes to measure wind direction and speed, pressure, humidity and temperature as they descend to the sea, transmitting that information back to the aircraft. The planes also have a tail Doppler radar system, or TDR, located near the back that measures precipitation and winds, creating a three-dimensional “CAT scan” that can show forecasters where the strongest winds are, how far they extend out from the storm center and where the most intense rainfall occurs, according to NOAA.

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Gonzo, the Gulfstream jet, flies higher than the P-3s and gathers data on storms from the upper atmosphere.

The three planes are approaching the end of their life spans. The P-3s, for instance, have been in service since the 1970s, while the Gulfstream jet has been operating since the mid-1990s. While they have been retrofitted and repaired, flying through a hurricane can be grueling — for both the crews and the planes.

“They’re going to have to be retired by 2030, if not sooner,” the former senior NOAA official said. “It really depends on how many flights they do. So if we have a couple active seasons, they’re going to hit their end of life a lot sooner.”

In its 2022 aircraft plan, NOAA specified an “operational requirement” to procure four C-130 planes. The new aircraft would replace the two P-3s in service along with another one that was decommissioned in 2018, and provide the agency with “one additional aircraft to meet the expanding airborne data requirements and objectives,” according to the plan.

The most important time for gathering data from deep inside a hurricane is two or four days out, when officials are making decisions about warnings, said James Franklin, a former NOAA hurricane specialist.

The information collected by the hurricane-hunting planes is “extraordinarily valuable” for forecasting, said Steven Morey, an oceanographer at Florida A&M University. “If they don’t get quality data to assimilate in their analysis runs, then there’s going to be a degradation in the forecasts,” he said.

As Idalia moved through the Gulf of Mexico gathering strength, Miss Piggy and Gonzo, along with Air Force C-130s, flew missions that fed data back to the Hurricane Center. Kermit, grounded with a maintenance issue, did not fly the entire time before the storm moved ashore, one of the current NOAA employees said.

The Gulfstream jet flew missions through Monday evening, according to NOAA’s Smullen.

With two alternating crews, the sturdy P-3 was able to maintain regular monitoring flights into the storm as it approached Florida, the NOAA employee said. But early Wednesday morning, the battered plane was grounded.

Smullen confirmed that one of the agency’s P-3 planes had been “conducting back-to-back, round-the-clock research missions for 11 of the past 12 days on Hurricanes Franklin and Idalia, [and] experienced a mechanical issue, forcing the cancellation of a mission this morning to collect data on Hurricane Idalia.”

Jeff Masters, a former flight meteorologist for NOAA, said the airplane data is more critical when storms are farther from shore. “The loss of the P-3 data is not a big issue in this case, since the hurricane was close to landfall at the time and was being well sampled by land-based radar,” he said.

And the Hurricane Center did receive data as the storm came ashore from the Air Force flight that had also been requested.

Still, Masters said, “It is fortunate that the P-3 did not go out of service a day or two before landfall, when such data is extremely valuable for model predictions.”

NOAA has stopped its flights now that Idalia has moved over land, Smullen said, noting that the agency deploys the aircraft only when the storm’s center is over water.

Both P-3 planes are expected to return to service by next week, he added, while the Gulfstream is undergoing maintenance to fix a flight control mechanism.

Still, the recent plane troubles have heightened concerns among some as the agency braces for more hurricanes this year and beyond.

“We’re not out of the woods,” the NOAA employee said, noting that the peak of this hurricane season is probably still coming. “We’re just getting started.”

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