Hurricane Hunters
Inside the Eye of the Storm

Inside Hurricane Dorian Photo Courtesy of Garrett Black /U.S. Air Force

Every hurricane has an island of calm and stillness: the eye. Not many of us will ever experience it in our lives, but for U.S. Air Force Captain Garrett Black, it is part of his job. Our author Arabelle Liepold spoke with him about experiencing the calm center of chaos, literally.

Arabelle Liepold

Growing up in Kansas, tornadoes were always the talking point for Captain Garrett Black when it came to weather. This fascination with tornadoes eventually led him to want to better understand other types of natural disasters, particularly hurricanes. Today, he works at the Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi.

As the Aerial Reconnaissance Weather Officer of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, also known as the Hurricane Hunters, he is responsible for guiding the WC-130J airplane to collect the most critical data for forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “This valuable data ultimately improves both the intensity forecast and narrows down the ‘Cone of Uncertainty’ of where the storm may go,” Captain Black explains. In other words, this data helps people on the ground by giving us enough lead time to prepare for the inevitable and stay safe.

Take a Deep Breath

One major factor in finding the calm of the storm is something that is not monitored on any of the displays in the cockpit — finding your inner calm. When everything else is in motion, Captain Black and his crew take a deep breath and steer their plane through the eyewall, or the area surrounding the eye of the hurricane, until there is nothing but blue skies and stillness around them.

Captain Black describes the feeling of being inside the eye of a major hurricane as surreal. “There is a moment of both appreciation and fear of the power of nature. The weather typically begins to change dramatically once we exit the eyewall heading towards the eye of the storm. In major hurricanes, the skies typically begin to clear out, leaving calmer weather and rapidly decreasing winds and pressure.”

The Stadium Effect

This is what also happened on September 1, 2019, when the crew flew right into the eye of Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm that hit the Bahamas with winds of up to 220 miles per hour and storm surges of up to 23 feet, making it one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes to make landfall to date.

The picture he snapped with his camera from the cockpit quickly went viral. It shows the tip of the airplane propeller surrounded by a giant wall of clouds with bright and sunny skies above. This is what scientists call the “stadium effect,” caused by towering thunderstorms in the eyewall of extremely powerful hurricanes.

  • Dorian from the ISS Photo Courtesy of NASA/Christina Koch
    NASA astronaut Christina Koch snapped this image of Hurricane Dorian at the International Space Station during a flyover on September 2, 2019. The station orbits more than 200 miles above the Earth.
  • Extraterrestrial perspective of Dorian eye Photo Courtesy of NASA/Nick Hague
    Astronaut Nick Hague, aboard the International Space Station, posted this photograph of Hurricane Dorian to Twitter on September 2, 2019. He added, “You can feel the power of the storm when you stare into its eye from above. Stay safe, everyone!”
  • Inside Dorian Photo Courtesy of U.S. Air Force/Capt. Garrett Black
    Air Force meteorologist and Hurricane Hunter Garrett Black captured a stunning, rare image from inside the eye of Hurricane Dorian on September 1, 2019.
  • Garrett Black at Keesler Air Force Base Photo Courtesy of U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Ryan Labadens
    Capt. Garrett Black, the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron aerial reconnaissance weather officer, talks with members of the media.
Flying through Dorian has been the most memorable hurricane experience Captain Black has had so far. “Taking off into the storm, we knew it was going to be a very strong hurricane. What made Dorian stand out to me was every single pass we made through the eye of the storm, the pressure was falling rapidly, showing just how strong Dorian was becoming. To witness firsthand a hurricane become a powerful Category 5 storm is a unique experience.”

Does flying into a hurricane ever become routine? It depends, says Captain Black. “I think there is a point during really busy seasons when you become fatigued, where it can start to feel routine. That being said, I do take time to try and reflect on the uniqueness of the job and to remind myself of those the data is helping. Oftentimes, we are so focused on getting the mission accomplished that it isn’t until later when we have some time to reflect on the rarity of the mission.”

One might think that a hurricane hunter finds some downtime during the offseason — far from it! “When it isn’t hurricane season, we fly a variety of different missions, including winter storms typically along the Eastern Seaboard and atmospheric rivers, which are responsible for bringing important precipitation to the West Coast of the United States.”

So, next time you think about the stress level in your current job, think again.

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