NOAA 2001-R508
Contact: Jeanne Kouhestani

NOAA Celebrates 25th Anniversary of First Flight of Noaa P-3 Hurricane Hunter Aircraft on June 27

Twenty-five years ago, on June 27, a NOAA crew flew the first P3 "hurricane hunter" aircraft into Hurricane Bonny in the eastern Pacific. After 646 runs into 67 hurricanes, that same P-3 is considered such a workhorse that it's still in the air for NOAA today.

Because of its greater power, speed and range, the P-3 was acquired to replace a DC-6 that NOAA had been using for hurricane research. P-3s, however, had never been used for this purpose before.

"The early season Pacific hurricane was less intense than most Atlantic hurricanes, so Hurricane Bonny was a relatively safe testing ground for the new P-3," said Jim DuGranrut, deputy director of NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center in Tampa, Fla., where the P-3 is based. DuGranrut, an electronics engineer on the 1976 flight, is the only member of the original crew still working for NOAA.

"We had been working around the clock to get the P-3 equipped with its meteorological instrumentation and ready to fly by the beginning of hurricane season. Then during the flight we were so busy making sure the equipment worked, we didn't have time to get nervous," DuGranrut said. "Nevertheless, we were all pretty relieved by the end of the first flight that the P-3 handled so well. It takes a lot of nerve to fly into a hurricane in an unproven aircraft."

"That first P-3 flight was a scientific milestone as well," said Peter Black, a scientist with NOAA's Hurricane Research Division in Miami, Fla., who was on board a companion NOAA C-130 aircraft that flew with the P-3. "The sea-surface temperature data collected on our companion flight, together with the P-3 data at low, middle and high levels, showed how Bonny peaked and then weakened when it crossed the ‘cold wake' created by intense Hurricane Annette, which had passed through the area two weeks earlier."

That 1976 season gave more opportunities for the NOAA P-3 to prove its mettle. The aircraft flew into Atlantic-spawned hurricanes Francis and Gloria, and was again up to the task. Though sparsely equipped by today's standards, the P-3 carried temperature probes and pressure sensors on its fuselage, and a single radar in its nose radome that gave meteorologists on board an up-close view of storm dynamics.

In 1977 NOAA's first P-3 was joined by a second, and over the next two years both turboprop aircraft were outfitted with three weather radars specially designed for them: in the nose radome, underneath the fuselage, and in the tail section. These gave scientists a three-dimensional look at hurricanes for the first time. The system in the tail section was upgraded two years later to a Doppler radar, the first weather Doppler radar to be flown on an aircraft.

During the past 25 years, significant progress was made in hurricane forecasting, largely due to advances in technology used aboard the P-3s as well as in computer models used in hurricane research. The quantity and quality of data transmitted from the aircraft to the National Hurricane Center dramatically increased with the introduction of satellite communications, which replaced high-frequency radio. The development of dropwindsondes, small instruments that are deployed from the aircraft and transmit data back to the aircraft, enabled meteorologists to get temperature, humidity, pressure, wind speed and wind direction data from the altitude of the aircraft down to the sea surface. Dropwindsondes now utilize the global positioning system, which replaced the old Omega navigation system, to couple the meteorological data with the precise location and movement of each sonde as it transmits. Today the P-3s also carry remote sensing equipment that measures sea surface temperature, rain fall rate, wind speed and wind direction. This latter technology is particularly important in predicting storm surge, which can be the most devastating impact of a landfalling hurricane.

NOAA's hurricane research mission also changed in the past 25 years. The P-3s were originally acquired to carry out hurricane modification research. The focus was later changed to improve hurricane forecasting. More than two decades of research and investigation of storms by NOAA's Hurricane Research Division has led to better computer models and a greater understanding of the life cycle of storms and the differences in the way storms develop.

In addition to conducting research, the P-3s provide data to the National Hurricane Center, which uses the information for current hurricane predictions. Though most reconnaissance missions for the National Hurricane Center are flown by Air Force Reserves WC-130 hurricane hunters, the P-3s fly missions in Cuban air space, where Air Force planes do not go.

In the 1980s, the two P-3s were dubbed Kermit and Miss Piggy after the beloved Muppet characters. This came about when an Aircraft Operations Center mechanic decided to spruce up a bedraggled P-3 nicknamed "the pig." After renaming the aircraft Miss Piggy, the center contacted Jim Henson Productions to see if the company would be interested in designing logos for both aircraft in an effort to better educate children about NOAA's hurricane research mission. Jim Henson Productions designed the logos–Kermit and Miss Piggy wearing flight suits and goggles--that now adorn the aircraft.

Despite flying into nature's worst storms, the P-3s remain in remarkably good condition, a testament to the quality of maintenance performed by the Aircraft Operations Center's skilled personnel. In addition to regular maintenance, the aircraft are rigorously inspected every 300 flight hours and undergo a complete overhaul every three and a half years.

NOAA added a Gulfstream-IV high altitude surveillance jet to its hurricane aircraft fleet in 1997. Called Gonzo after another Muppets character, the G-IV flies around hurricanes into the steering currents, helping forecasters increase the accuracy of their landfall predictions.

NOAA's hurricane hunters and other aircraft are operated, managed, equipped, and maintained by the Aircraft Operations Center, located at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. The aircraft are crewed by officers of the NOAA Corps, the nation's seventh service, and civilian meteorologists, flight engineers, and electronics engineers and technicians. AOC is part of NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. The P-3s fly primarily in support of NOAA's Hurricane Research Division.

NOTE TO EDITORS: Nine crew members and scientists from the first NOAA P-3 flight will reunite on Wednesday, June 27, at 10:00 a.m. for a brief ceremony at the Aircraft Operations Center in Tampa. Please contact Lori Sumner at (813) 828-3310, Ext. 3072, if you would like to attend.