“You’re always taught to stay away from hurricanes.”
Lieutenant Commander Danielle Varwig says that’s what most pilots would tell you — but she isn’t like most pilots.
As a hurricane hunter for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Varwig spends her working day chasing the eye of the storm.
Varwig pilots a Gulfstream IV jet that flies over the hurricane — when skies above the hurricane are clear, she says it’s possible to get a “surreal” bird’s eye vantage point of the whole storm.
More often than not, though, visibility is poor. “We’re in the clouds, trusting our instruments and flight directors,” says Varwig.
Meteorologist Nikki Hathaway is one of these flight directors. She rides shotgun with Varwig, guiding her through some of the most difficult flying conditions imaginable. Hathaway also accompanies pilots on NOAA’s P-3 Orion planes, which can fly directly into the storm.
These aircraft are “flying science labs” that host up to 18 engineers, data technicians, scientists, and researchers, as well as a variety of tech to help the team gather data, says Hathaway.
The data “goes back down to the National Hurricane Center,” where it’s used “in real-time to make lifesaving decisions impacting the people on the ground potentially in harm’s way,” says Hathaway.
A key piece of tech is a dropsonde, a device that can be dropped from the aircraft, and will collect weather data such as pressure, temperature, and humidity as it falls to Earth. But a dropsonde can only collect data in a single location, and the meteorologists can’t control it once it’s descending, limiting the range of data they can gather.