Wednesday, September 11, 2013

5 Years Ago, My Flight Through Hurricane Ike

Of all the things I have experienced in my weather career, by far the most memorable happened 5 years ago today.  On September 9th, I received a phone call that lifted me up off the ground in excitement, then two days later lifted me into the eye of Hurricane Ike. 

The huge storm had its eye set on the northern Gulf Coast with the remnants to move right over Arkansas.  I thought there was an outside chance the "Hurricane Hunters", based in Biloxi, MS, would give me the opportunity to fly with them and show Arkansans all the effort put into forecasting these monsters.  The call came and I was soon on a flight to Keesler Air Force Base with photojournalist Brian Ferguson. 

On September 11th, the day started with a preflight briefing going over the the objective of the mission.  We then boarded a van to get to the C-130 aircraft.  That plane would be our home for the next 10 hours.   We had to bring our own food (cheese crackers, bananas, along with bottled water).  The adrenaline was pumping at this point.  I didn't know exactly what to expect as I have never flown on a plane like this.  The seating was a simple bench that lined the sides of the plane.  Outside the plane was a hot, humid, tropical airmass, but inside it was COLD.  My memory tells me it was in the upper 50s to maybe lower 60s.  If we needed to use the restroom, we had to walk to the back of the plane and pull a sheet attached to a rod hanging above.   There was basically no privacy.  

It was so loud aboard the C-130, ear plugs were mandatory.  It didn't take long after takeoff to arrive in the eye of the storm.  We flew at the standard 10 thousand feet and made several passes through the eye in what's called an "Alpha Pattern".  

Shortly after making one the passes, our mission changed.  We were asked to descend to a mere 2 thousand feet to look for a man who fell off a boat on the north side of the eye wall.  It was now a search and rescue mission.  Going to that altitude in a hurricane came with just a little turbulence (said with sarcasm).  We were asked to look out the windows, hold on tight, and look for anything that could be that guy.  We were hoping to put a lat/lon fix on him and get the Coast Guard out there for a rescue.  There was some thought he could have been in a highly visible life raft.  At 2 thousand feet, the waves created by Ike were enormous and it felt you could just reach out and touch them.  We estimated a wave height around 25 to 30 feet.  We never found the guy and to this day, I still don't know what happened to him.  

Once we landed after an exhausting day, it was back to Little Rock to put the story together.  It was a true honor to fly on that mission with the men and women of the "Hurricane Hunters."  All of which are trained at the Little Rock Air Force Base.

This was only 5 years ago today and I wasn't on social media at the time as it was just getting started, especially facebook.  I can only imagine the "twitter fest"  I would have today going on one of those flights.  (assuming you can do that from an aircraft like that).

The remnants of Ike produced significant flooding here in Arkansas along with tornadoes.  Many lost power.  To see specifics on its impact, the National Weather Service office in North Little Rock put together an awesome report.  CLICK HERE TO READ IT.

Below are pictures I took on the flight AND video of the story which aired on Channel 7

The view from my hotel room the night before the mission.  It truly was the calm before the storm.
Loading cargo onto the flight just moments before takeoff.
There's the seating along the sides of the plane.  We were on our way to the storm.
Holding on in the cockpit as we road through the bumpy eye wall inside Ike.
Photojournalist Brian Ferguson doing what he does best.
Our pilot flying the plane while looking at radar to his right.
Inside the eye of Ike from 10 thousand feet.
Another shot looking inside the eye.  It was not perfectly formed when we flew through it.
Watching data coming in from the Radiosondes launched from the belly of the plane.
This is the tube where the radiosondes are launched from.  When the release button is hit, it makes a loud "thud" felt and heard throughout the aircraft.  The radiosonde records several meteorological measurements all the way to the ocean surface.  This lets us know where the exact center of the storm is located and how strong it is.  The data is then placed into computer models to help forecast the storm.
Remember the restroom I told you about?  See that sheet on the left and in the back.  Behind that and next to the wall is the toilet!!  Privacy. LOL... No!
I'm interviewing one of the pilots for the story.  Notice I'm wearing ear plugs.  Tough to hear anything with or without them in! 
As we went on the rescue mission, we saw some absolutely huge waves.  This one we estimated at 30 feet high as I took a picture of it from a mere 2 thousand feet.

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