Hurricane hunter won't fly into tornadic storms
SALINA, Kan. — The white and blue propeller-driven hurricane hunter called "Kermit" makes rounds each year in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. Over the next month, however, the P-3 Orion will stand ready for a different mission — to intercept and observe supercell storms in Tornado Alley.
Its hurricane assignments happen between June and November, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sends its aircraft around the world for severe weather and atmospheric research programs.
"We do a lot of heavy lifting during the off-season with projects like this," said pilot Cmdr. Justin Kibbey.
Each mission has different challenges. Unlike its day job flying into hurricanes, the aircraft will keep a safe distance from towering and dangerous supercells commonly seen over the Great Plains.
"Flying a hurricane over water, it's a different type of energy source," Kibbey said. "Whereas here, you get supercells that planes can't fly through, planes shouldn't fly through, because there's hail and graupel and all types of things that can damage this plane."
Graupel is a soft hail or snow pellet created when super-cooled water coats a snowflake.
During the month-long mission this year and next during the height of tornado season, Kibbey's team members will remain in Salina, Kansas, because of its central location and long runway. They'll be poised to intercept severe weather as it forms, then take measurements for the NOAA-funded Targeted Observation by Radars and Unmanned Aerial Systems, or TORUS Project.
"Flying into a supercell is a whole 'nother beast," said TORUS principal investigator Adam Houston, an atmospheric science professor from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "Its role is to fly ahead of the storm in the inflow collecting radar data."
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The crew will stay miles ahead of the storm and use its powerful radar equipment to scan the weather.
"Our mission is to stay just in front of it where we can use our radars to map these storms for our scientists and for the folks on the ground. But just stay far enough away where we don't get touched by the things that really hurt us. Our goal is to keep the plane safe, to keep us safe, but get that very, very important radar information," Kibbey said. "It's definitely not something your average pilot or flight crew would want to do, but we do a lot of training and preparing for it so that we mitigate those risks."
The sweet spot, he said, is about five miles away.
"We don't want to go through weather, because the storms out here can be very dangerous. If we're out in front, that's where you're going to get new growth," Kibbey said. "So sometimes we're having to maneuver around that new growth as it's coming up in front of us, something that may not be on a radar yet, but we're seeing visually. If we don't pay attention, it can trap us."