Hurricane hunter Ian Sears often jokes that the most dangerous part of his day is not flying through the eye of a hurricane, it’s driving to the runway and climbing a steep ladder to get on board the plane.
Sears is a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). He flies on sturdy planes through some of the planet’s strongest storms to gather precious data that will help forecasters determine where a hurricane is heading and how powerful it’ll be when it gets there.
If people in Texas had a few days to prepare before Hurricane Harvey came barreling down with unprecedented amounts of rain last month, it’s because of the work that Sears does. NOAA has two special airplanes for the job. One is the P-3, which flies at about 10,000 feet or below, directly into the worst of the hurricane and through the eye. The other is the Gulfstream IV, which flies around the hurricane at about 41,000 to 45,000 feet. Think about them as cars, Sears says. “A P-3 is gonna be kind of equivalent to your Humvee or a Jeep that is built for rugged terrain,” he tells The Verge. “The Gulfstream IV is probably more like your Lamborghini.”
The airplanes are basically flying meteorological stations. The rugged P-3 measures pressure, humidity, temperature, and the speed and direction of a hurricane's winds. It also gathers data on the exact location of the storm, its structure, and its intensity. The Lamborghini-esque Gulfstream IV is key for understanding the environment around the storm, like the low- and high-pressure systems that help steer hurricanes around, determining where exactly they’ll make landfall. All this data is transmitted to the National Hurricane Center in real time; it’s fed into supercomputers that predict where the hurricane is going. Those forecasts are then used by authorities to call for evacuation orders and help people like me and you brace for the storm.
It’s a tiring job — with 12- to 13-hour-days, Sears says — and turbulence that sometimes feels like more like a roller coaster than a commercial flight. But it’s also a rewarding one. At the end of the day, it’s thanks to the data collected by the hurricane hunters that people can save their lives during monster storms. “You feel very accomplished when you get back on the ground,” Sears says. “You feel like you're helping your neighbor. You feel like you're helping your countrymen. And it's a sense of duty that we're very proud of.”
In the midst of this very active hurricane season, The Verge spoke with Sears about what it’s like to fly through the eye of a hurricane, what dangers he faces, and what makes the job worth it.
The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What’s it like to fly into a hurricane?
Every hurricane has its own personality. They're all very different. Some of them are very angry at times. Some of them are very docile. The transit out to the hurricane is often beautiful weather. And then the clouds start to just kinda slowly fill in, and the next thing you know, you're at the outermost rain band. You see it on the radar and you know at this point, ‘Okay, it's time to get to work and be ready for anything.’ So the ride often can be very smooth headed into the eye wall.
It gets progressively worse and worse and worse, until, at some point you, see very clearly on your radar scope that there is a mean, angry eye wall staring at you. And you can't necessarily see it because you're in clouds the whole time. You can only see it on radar, and the radar picture is telling you that the system is wrapping up, it's very turbulent, and you're preparing for this. And then you hear the rain really beating against the fuselage and the windscreen, and it gets louder and louder and louder. And then finally, as you're approaching the eye wall, it's extreme amounts of rain, the cabin is often being jostled around like your worst roller coaster — very strong, turbulent motion both up and down and sometimes even side to side.
And then it starts to lighten up a little bit as you're starting to get into the eye. And then very, very shortly after that, it's just bright. There is not a cloud near you. All the clouds are below you. You can see the eye wall extending up thousands of feet over you. At that point, you know you're in the eye. And once you get there, you have to go right back through it all again out the other side. And so you see this big wall of clouds that you know that you have to fly through. There's no other way out.
What's the mood when you're approaching the storm? Is it intimidating, or are you used to it by now?
If you ever get used to it, I think you're in the wrong business. You have to have a healthy respect for every hurricane. They all present their own unique challenges. And I say this because we always want to do this safely. And we can do it safely because, one, we have a lot of experience. Two, we have a very solid plan for when we're about to go fly through a hurricane. And three, we respect the power of nature and what it can bring to us. So we're not necessarily scared, but we are prepared for the worst and we're hoping for the best.
What sorts of calculated risks do you take to get the data that you need?
Any time you board an airplane, there are risks that you're taking. So one of the things that we really do is we've tried to learn from mistakes or experiences that people before us have flown. So it's kind of like the campfire talks of thousands of years ago, where you're learning about the dangers of what it is that you're doing. Because flying through hurricanes is a very unnatural thing. Aviation was not designed to fly through hurricanes.
As the meteorologist on board, I'm looking for specific characteristics in the radar returns. And if there's something very specific to a section that we're about to fly through, it's my responsibility to let our pilots know, “Hey, there is this feature here that is potentially unsafe. Let's avoid that particular region of a hurricane.” And so it's very much an experience and a knowledge passed down and talking about it. And sometimes you have to experience situations to understand that those are the ones that we need to avoid in the future.
Has flying through hurricanes changed your view of them and the destruction they cause?
It's very, very different being in an airplane. The duration that you're being exposed to the hurricane environment is much, much less than when you're riding one out on the ground. It's not your home that is being ripped up to a degree by the hurricane. You're out there trying to make sure that the information is gonna be received by the people on the ground. And so you get an up-close and personal look at the sheer power of a hurricane. Every time you see it, you're always amazed at the power of Mother Nature and what she can bring.
Most recently, Hurricane Irma went right through my state [Florida], and this time it was a little more personal. It's the first time in my nine hurricane seasons doing this that it's been my state, my family that has been in the crosshairs of a hurricane. And so at that point, you don't change what you do. You don't change the way you go about your daily lives. But it brings you back to the fact that we are doing this for the American people, to show them that there is a hurricane out there, it is this strong, this is where it's going, and make the correct preparations well ahead of time. So it makes the job that we're doing valuable. Because if we can warn people, get information to the people, then any risk that we're taking makes it worth it.
Update October 5th, 2017 12:55PM ET: This story was originally published on September 22nd, 2017 and has been updated with video.