(WKBN) – Hurricane season is just starting to ramp up in the Atlantic. The peak of hurricane season will arrive in mid September and it is expected to be an active one.

When a hurricane forms, the first details that are reported in a weather broadcast are the name, maximum sustained wind speed and the minimum pressure in the storm. You might be wondering: How are these variables measured even when the storm is hundreds of miles from shore?

It is time to talk about one of the coolest jobs in weather: “The Hurricane Hunter”.

Who are the hurricane hunters?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) features a division called the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO). This division includes multiple aircraft and aquatic vessels that play an active role in researching different processes in the atmosphere and ocean. The hurricane hunters are part of this division.

This special department houses three aircraft that assist in reconnaissance of tropical cyclones throughout the globe. The first two aircraft are Lockheed WP-3D Orion four-engine turboprop aircraft. These are the actual aircraft that fly into the eye of the storm and the scientists aboard these planes will sometimes have to go on 8-10 hour flights into some of the strongest storms on Earth.

The NOAA Lockheed WP-3D Orion aircraft flying through the air.The NOAA Lockheed WP-3D Orion aircraft flying through the air (Photo: Lt. Kevin Doremus / NOAA).

The hurricane hunters also deploy a Gulfstream IV-SP, which flies high above the storm taking key measurements in the upper atmosphere to assist with forecasting that path of the hurricane.

The NOAA Gulfstream-IV taking off for a mission (Photo: Lt. Kevin Doremus / NOAA).

How do the hurricane hunters measure the strength of a hurricane?

Flying planes into the storm is only part of the equation when assessing the strength of a tropical system. These planes are outfitted with state-of-the-art atmospheric sensors that provide meteorologists with useful information on the intensity and path of the hurricane.

First, and most importantly, the NOAA P-3 aircraft are outfitted with two weather radars: one that is in the tail of the aircraft and the other that is under the lower fuselage. These radars scan both vertically and horizontally and provide the pilots and scientists with detailed information about the intensity of rainfall in the storm. The radar data help the pilots steer away from intense areas of rain and wind shear to ensure a successful mission.

Meteorologists aboard the hurricane hunter flights deploy GPS dropsondes through a tube in the aircraft which measures temperature, pressure and wind speed as the plane flies through the hurricane. This information is used to identify the strength of a hurricane and is usually the information that is reported to viewers in the path of the dangerous storm. The data from these dropsondes are available in real-time and are a valuable asset to meteorologists who are tracking the storm.

Description of a dropsonde from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

How do the aircraft survive strong wind gusts?

Contrary to popular belief, it is not strong winds that tear apart aircraft. Wind shear, or the change in wind direction with height, is what typically causes structural damage to aircraft. Passenger planes routinely fly in 100+ MPH winds throughout the year in the United States.

Hurricanes form in environments with minimal wind shear, and the strong winds in a hurricane are often uniform which allows the hurricane hunters to take measurements safely.