In September 1989, a group of scientists and pilots known as the Hurricane Hunters took off in NOAA 42, a government research plane, to gather important information on the rapidly growing hurricane Hugo. In episode 85 of Take to the Sky: the Air Disaster Podcast, we explore the harrowing events swirling around NOAA 42 as the plane descended to just 1,500 feet at the outside edge of the eyewall and encountered stronger turbulence than expected. As the plane made its way through the eye wall, the crew struggled to save the plane from wildly swinging g-forces, a loosened de-icing boot, and a fire in the number three engine. Once inside the eye, NOAA 42 and a nearby Air Force C-130 plane, known as TEAL 57, work together to help NOAA 42 eventually – and safely – exit the storm and land back in Barbados. The Naval investigation led to changes that helped make future Hurricane Hunter flights safer by limiting the altitude of entry into hurricanes to 5,000 feet.
In September 1989, Hurricane Hugo Takes Aim at Eastern U.S.
It is September 1989, and sections of the southern and eastern United States is hunkering down, waiting for a powerful hurricane to come ashore. And this hurricane is nothing like the country has seen in many, many years: this is Hurricane Hugo.
By 1989, around-the-clock cable news, including The Weather Channel, had become a source of go-to news for the public. And this storm was at the top of the news as media outlets closely watched how the hurricane was shaping up out in the Atlantic Ocean while the public asked, where will Hugo hit and how bad will it be?
An important organization exists today – and even back then – to answer those questions. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) had banks of scientists watching the storm and used scientific data to communicate life-saving information to the public and local and state agencies. But where did their information come from? How did the NHC get real-time information about such dangerous storms that, literally, changed from minute to minute?
The information is obtained directly from the storm itself by a team of pilots and scientists known as the Hurricane Hunters, who fly straight into the storms.
The Hurricane Hunters are a team within the U.S. government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (or NOAA). Within NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, this team of specially equipped scientists travel on NOAA aircraft that serve as high-flying meteorological stations in the sky. These weather missions help forecasters make accurate predictions and improve forecast models. This is turn helps agencies to make decisions about evacuations and storm damage preparations in communities across the country.
NOAA 42 Prepares for Latest Hurricane Penetration Mission
And in September 1989, an all-star crew boards NOAA 42, which is a scientific research plane that will fly into Hugo and send back real-time bursts of data to the NHC. Flight director Dr. Jeffrey Masters, a scientist and meteorologist by profession, arrives at the tarmac at Barbados's Grantly Adams field. For now, the sky is absent of any evidence that Hugo exists. Masters can only see the puffy fair weather cumulus clouds typical of a tropical summer morning. Onboard NOAA 42 (also known as “Kermit”), the flight engineers and maintenance crew are already hard at work, fueling the airplane and completing their pre-flight inspections for what could be up to a nine-hour inflight mission.
As Masters comes onboard, he enters into a hive of activity, as the scientific teams are setting up their equipment stations throughout the cabin, which is now filling up with computers, scientific instruments, and delicate circuit boards. Five scientists from NOAA's Hurricane Research Division huddle together, pointing at charts spread out over a table, and talk intently about the day's mission--the Hurricane Energetics Experiment, designed to study hurricane intensification. Along the way, the scientists and engineers will track the storm, its power, windspeed, temperature, and pressure. In addition to his role as director, Masters will also directly communicate throughout the flight with the two pilots, Lowell Genzlinger and Gerry McKim, to guide the plane into the storm, based on what the storm is doing and how it’s tracking.
It’s important to mention that hurricanes are not stationary things. As Masters has described in interviews before, hurricanes wobble – they shift in size and in intensity from minute to minute. Aspects that can understandably make flying straight into a hurricane very difficult.
But the two pilots onboard NOAA 42 are the right men for this mission. Lowell Genzlinger is Aircraft Commander, a veteran of 249 previous hurricane eye penetrations. There is no better pilot in the business. Co-pilot is Gerry McKim, a relative newcomer to hurricane flying, but a Navy P-3 pilot for 20 years before coming to NOAA and already has 4 hurricane flights under his belt before today. This is his second year flying hurricanes and will be the pilot during today's eye penetrations. Rounding out the flight crew is flight engineer Steve Wade, also in just his second year of hurricane flying. His job is to monitor engine performance, fuel consumption, and other critical aircraft functions.
And if these are the right men for the job, then the plane they are flying is also the exact right aircraft for this job, too. NOAA 42 is a P-3 Orion turbo prop. The P-3 Orion is a four-engine turboprop aircraft originally designed by the U.S. Navy for both land and sea missions, like the one today. This aircraft is built in such a way that it can brave the strongest of storms. In addition to its four, very powerful engines, it also has stubby wings. It is designed to handle a lot of turbulence, which is important considering that about $10 million in scientific equipment is onboard, not to mention the men’s lives.
NOAA 42 and TEAL 57 Plan Coordinated Efforts at Different Altitudes
After all pre-flight preparations are complete, NOAA 42 soon takes off from Barbados, cruising at 10,000 feet (or 3,000 meters) and about 45 minutes from the storm. And NOAA 42 is not alone. Thirty minutes behind them is a crew onboard TEAL 57, which is an Air Force reserve C-130 aircraft, which is also planning to track the storm but at a higher altitude.
While inside the storm, however, the two planes will work together to get a more complete picture of the storm and its strength. Once it reaches Hugo, NOAA 42 will descend to just 1,500 feet (or 450 meters) above the sea before entering the eyewall first while TEAL 57 will enter at 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). (They are also joined by NOAA 43, also known as “Miss Piggy” to NOAA 42’s Kermit, but NOAA 43 does not play as integral a role in this flight event.)
Right Before Descending, NOAA 42 Belly Radar Fails
Just as NOAA 42 prepares to descend, one of the two, critical onboard radar systems goes down. This is not good. Loss of the radar under the lower fuselage and the Doppler radar located in the tail severely limits their ability to estimate the strength of the hurricane and determine a safe altitude to fly at. Moreover, the radar data is critical to the experiment they are conducting. The science team may want to delay the mission while repairs happen. But it was essential that the mission continue. Over the next 20 minutes, engineers work to get the radar system back up and running. Finally, just five minutes from NOAA 42’s planned descent point and only fifteen minutes from Hugo's first spiral band, the radar display flickers back on.
Inside the cockpit, pilots Genzlinger and McKim prepare themselves mentally for what is certain to be a bumpy ride. In fact, the pre-flight data indicated that winds inside the storm could be as strong as 125 mph (or 200 km/h), which as one pilot called it, means a possibility of “a good ride.”
At the moment, Hugo’s power was tracking toward a category 3 hurricane, which was still a dangerous storm: with a storm that strong, winds could reach 129 mph (or 208 km/h), and well-built framed homes could be seriously damaged. But in the intervening twenty minutes since they took off and had to fix the radar system, the data that flight director Masters sees now is chilling: Hugo is getting stronger, climbing into the 4th category of hurricane strength, meaning that winds now could reach 156 mph (or 251 km/h).
Masters discusses the data with his team, who are still adamant about descending to 1,500 feet. But, Masters needs to discuss the altitude with the pilots now that the storm has picked up in strength. He gets on the intercom to Genzlinger and they discuss the altitude of entry into the eyewall. The pilot would feel more comfortable going in at 5,000 feet (or 1500 meters), but Masters conveys that the team really wants to go in at 1,500 feet (or 450 meters). And so, it is settled: 1,500 feet it is.
NOAA 42 Enters Storm at 1500 Feet as Hurricane Grows in Strength
The pilots then announce to everyone onboard that they are setting Condition One: everyone must secure loose objects, stow away equipment, and buckle their seatbelts. They brace themselves for what is about to come: heavy turbulence during the twenty-minute voyage through the eyewall and into the hurricane’s eye.
NOAA 42 enters the outer edges of the storm, which already have powerful thunderstorms churning around the plane. From the perspective of those inside the plane, everything immediately goes dark, and they can hear the hammering sound of rain on the plane’s fuselage. With the heavy turbulence of the storms and winds that now reach 85 mph (or 136 km/h), NOAA 42’s wing tips begin to bounce up and down.
On the controls in the cockpit, Genzlinger and McKim work in a coordinated effort during this intense time in the operations of the flight. Outside them, everything is dark, and now they rely solely on their instruments to fly the plane level.
As they make their way deeper into the eyewall, powerful winds now blow the plane sideways, and because of that, the pilots must keep the plane skewed left and at a sharp angle, in a maneuver known as crabbing, while tracking 45 degrees to the right.
Because of the power of the storm’s winds, flight director Masters notices they have gone slightly off track, so he radios into the pilots and tells them they need to turn 5 degrees slightly to the left. Meanwhile, the data that the storm generates paints a very dangerous situation: sustained winds are now 185 mph, gusting to 196 mph (or 315 km/h), and pressure is plummeting. Hugo is now a category five hurricane, and NOAA 42 is in the eyewall at 1,500 feet! And there is no going back – turning around would cause the plane to tumble. There is only way one forward. This is now the test of a lifetime for pilots Genzlinger and McKim.
NOAA 42 Progresses Through Eyewall, Encountering Life-Threatening Conditions
A colossal 45 mph (or 72 km/h) updraft seizes the airplane. A shower of loose gear flies through the cabin as the airplane lurches violently. The pilots fight the updraft off, keep the airplane level, and keep heading towards the eye.
Now NOAA 42 is at the edge of the eyewall, and the sky lightens, the clouds thin, and the rain abates. Then, disaster. Thick dark clouds suddenly envelop the aircraft. A titanic fist of wind, three times the force of gravity, smashes the plane, which is now losing altitude and begins drifting too far left. Suddenly, the plane is banking dangerously to the right.
In the cabin, Masters is thrown into the computer console. A second massive jolt rocks the aircraft. Gear loosened by the previous turbulence flies around the inside of the aircraft, bouncing off the walls, ceiling, and crew members. The turbulence is so intense that a 200-pound life raft (or 90 kg) breaks loose and hurtles into the ceiling. Crew members fend off screwdrivers, wrenches, and an airborne toolbox with their arms. The locked drawers in the galley rip open, and a cooler loaded with soft drink cans explodes into the air.
A third terrific blow, almost six times the force of gravity, staggers the airplane. The entire fuselage seems to quiver and quake. Clip boards, flight bags, and headsets sail past people’s heads. Terrible thundering, crashing sounds boom through the cabin; crew members cry out. Masters thinks at this moment, "This is what it feels like to die in battle.”
The pilots try desperately to pull back on the rudders and get the left wing down, but the plane just won’t go. The g-forces swing wildly, from 5.8 positive Gs to 3.7 negative Gs. Now the plane is being pushed to its literal breaking point: the P-3 was built to withstand 3.1 positive Gs and one negative G. This is an extremely dangerous situation as NOAA 42, still losing altitude and in a dangerous bank angle, continues to fall closer and closer toward the sea.
If this was not enough danger, then the unthinkable happens: the number three engine catches fire. The pilots act quickly to cut off power to the engine to make the flames go out. While they have been saved from burning alive in air, the crew now face another threat: with one engine out, the plane is losing altitude fast. And not a lot of air separates them from crashing into the sea.
NOAA 42 Escapes Hurricane Hugo Eyewall with Damage
And then, almost as suddenly as things began to go wrong – the pilots recover from the right-rolling dive, at a perilous 880 feet (or 270 meters) above the waves – and NOAA 42 breaks through the eyewall and out into the clear, calm blue air and sunshine of the sky inside the hurricane’s eye. With a crippled plane, the pilots now need to assess the damage and plan for getting the airplane back to land. Despite the appearance of calm, there is danger all around them.
But, the pilots can tell that the plane is struggling to climb, what with the one engine completely flamed out and the plane full of heavy fuel. And in the violence of the ride through the storm, one of the de-icing boots have come loose and now dangle near one the number four engine. If this boot breaks off, it could be sucked inside the number four engine, which would mean the plane would suffer a catastrophic failure of two engines on the same side. If that happened, NOAA 42 would plummet into the sea.
And to complicate things further, the eye of the storm is less than 12 miles (or 19 kilometers) wide, which means that the pilots must carefully – and constantly – turn the plane inside the eye, or else it will fly directly back into the turbulent storm clouds. The pilots begin a series of slow spirals inside the eye, making constant corrections as they do to account for the changing motion of the swirling storm.
Flight director and scientist Masters takes in the sight of the never-before-seen category-five hurricane. It is an awesome, terrifying, and supernatural sight. As he recounts in Hunting Hugo, “the eyewall, a towering prison of blinding-white, boiling, virulent clouds, rings us on all sides. We are so low that I can see beneath the ragged bottom edge of the eyewall clouds, where Hugo's 160 mph surface winds whip the ocean surface into a greenish-white blur. Below us, the ocean churns in a frightening chaotic frenzy of colliding 50-foot high waves.” (50-foot high waves are equal to 15-meter high waves.)
The challenging truth before them is, the only way out of the storm is to go back through the eye wall, but this time, at a higher altitude where the wind is less powerful, and the air is calmer.
TEAL 57 and NOAA 42 Fly Breathtaking Maneuvers Inside Eyewall to Plot Course Out of Dangerous Storm
The pilots come up with a plan. They will ask the crew from TEAL 57, the nearby Air Force C-130, to inspect their aircraft so they at least know what they are facing as they plot out their course back through the storm. Genzlinger radios into the Air Force crew and informs them of their perilous situation: NOAA 42 is down one engine, and they need TEAL 57 to fly down and meet them and conduct a visual inspection of any damage to the plane. Back on TEAL 57, the crew gets silent and looks one another in the eyes at this news: their shared sentiment is the same – this is a really bad situation. Life threatening, in fact.
The TEAL 57 crew agrees to descend to where NOAA 42 is for the visual inspection. While the C-130 descends, the crew of NOAA 42 must make a critical decision: to help the plane climb, should they dump fuel? It is a dangerous proposition to dump fuel because if they do, they may be unable to make it the distance to the runway back in Barbados, which is 300 miles (or 482 km) away. Eventually, the pilots agree to dump around 15,000 pounds (or 6800 kilograms) of the 40,000 pounds of jet fuel. The dumping takes fifteen minutes, and now the decision to dump means the tanks will be empty now in just a few hours.
With less weight from fuel, NOAA 42 is now able to climb and meet the C-130 at around 6,000 feet (or 1800 meters). This is a very tricky, once-in-a-lifetime maneuver the two planes are embarking upon.
The NOAA plane must climb while TEAL 57 must descend at the same time and they must continuously report one another’s airspeed and position to prevent from colliding with the other plane.
Fly-bys are dangerous operations in the best of conditions; great caution must be exercised to avoid a mid-air collision. The fact that NOAA 42 is circling in the tight and shrinking eye of a category five hurricane makes this an extremely difficult and dangerous maneuver. To put this moment into perspective, one of the pilots interviewed for Air Disasters said that this was beyond dangerous and that pilots would never risk this if lives were not at stake.
The two planes finally, and visually, spot one another inside the eye. As they get closer, they try and maintain a 1,000-foot (or 300 meters) distance apart, a distance that allows for zero mistakes and only for exact precision. Plus, don’t forget that the hurricane continues to wobble, move, and change size all around them.
The crew of TEAL 57 quickly conducts their inspection and has the first good news yet for NOAA 42: the plane is still in one piece. And, the de-icing boot has apparently fallen off the aircraft without falling into the engine.
TEAL 57 Helps NOAA 42 Find Exit Through Eyewall at Higher Altitude
And then the crew of TEAL 57 has one more favor they are granting to NOAA 42. The commander radios into the NOAA plane, "We're going to exit the eye now through the east eyewall and see how rough it is for you over there. We'll continue penetrating the eyewall until we find a soft spot for you."
The pilots of NOAA 42 respond with graciousness and relief. Everyone onboard says a silent THANK YOU to the brave crew of TEAL 57, who are risking their lives for those on the NOAA plane.
The two crews leave their comms link open, and as TEAL 57 penetrates the eye wall, the NOAA 42 crew can hear as Hugo's awesome winds give TEAL 57 a terrible beating. Moments later, the commander comes back on radio and reports ruefully, "Better not try the east eyewall! We'll circle around to the south now, and come into the eye through the south eyewall."
Co-pilot McKim keeps the NOAA 42 plane circling the eye, but the plane has gone as high as its three engines will take them, which is to 7,000 feet (or 2100 meters). Any further attempts to climb bring the temperature needle on the overtaxed number four engine into the dangerous red zone. This also means that NOAA 42 will need to exit Hugo's eye at 7,000 feet.
Finally, TEAL 57 finds a spot through which the NOAA plane can exit: it’s in the northeastern section of the eye wall. And with that, NOAA 42 once again enters the eyewall. Immediately, everyone can feel the difference between this time through versus the first time through. After twenty intense minutes, NOAA 42 escapes Hurricane Hugo, and then races back to Barbados and lands safely.
U.S. Navy Investigates NOAA 42 Incident and Finds Common Maintenance Issue Caused Engine Failure
Because this was a NOAA flight, the Navy investigates the accident. Their main objective is to understand what made the number three engine flame out, what caused the de-icing boot to loosen and fall off, and what this accident can teach them about how to make future Hurricane Hunter flights the safest possible flights.
Investigator Terry Laydon leads the charge and one of the first things the team explores is why the number three engine caught fire and failed.
The record for this P-3 aircraft is flawless; in fact, it has flown safely through many other hurricanes. At first, the investigative team thinks the engine fire was caused by the turbulence and g-forces that enveloped the plane. But after much testing and examination, the cause of the engine fire is identified: the fire was caused by a broken sensor which was unable to control fuel flow to the engine. When the sensor failed, fuel overflowed into the engine, causing it to catch fire. The finding is shocking and unsettling because, this is something that could have happened at any moment, but it coincidentally happened just at the worst moment: when the plane was powering through the most powerful storm it had ever encountered before.
When exploring what made the de-icing boot fall off, the investigative team finds that it was caused by a rare weather phenomenon that has never been seen before on a flight. Hugo’s eye wall was dotted with tornado-like areas called meso-vortices, where windspeeds can reach in excess of 200 mph (or 320 km/h). And NOAA 42 flew right into one. But, how did a team of scientists miss that?
The answer takes them back to even before NOAA 42 entered into the storm. When one of the two main radar systems failed, engineers were hyper focused on fixing the problem and did not have a lot of time to analyze the storm and prepare. Looking back, flight director Masters thinks the mission could have been made safer with more preparation, and because of another, important aspect: they never should have entered a hurricane that powerful at such a low altitude.
Following this ordeal, the NOAA organization made changes so that the first research plane flies in at 5,000 feet (or 1500 meters) or higher, and once inside the storm, can descend to lower altitudes.
Perhaps the most important legacy of NOAA 42 is this: despite these life-threatening circumstances, the scientific team was able to gather a plethora of real-time data for the National Hurricane Center, which enabled communities in the direct path of Hugo to take cover and evacuate. Because of that, NOAA 42 ultimately completed its mission that day in September 1989.
And THAT is the amazing and heroic story of the Hurricane Hunters and NOAA 42.