Flying Into Hurricane Rita

The Naked Scientists spoke to Mark Schrope, freelance journalist in Florida, USA
06 November 2005

Interview with 

Mark Schrope, freelance journalist in Florida, USA


Mark - I wanted to learn about a programme called RAINEX, which look sat why it is that hurricanes can dramatically shift from a category 3 to a much more devastating category 5 really in the space of a few hours. I tagged along on a research flight into Hurricane Rita.

Chris - It sounds like a pretty crazy thing to do to get on a plane and fly straight into the heart of a hurricane. But this is actually standard practice isn't it?

Mark - It is, and it's been going on since the 1970s, so on the one side you can feel safe because they know what they're doing, but then on the other side you feel they've been doing it a long time and so their time is coming!

Chris - So you took off and were heading into the heart of Hurricane Rita.

Mark - We left from tamper, which is where the planes are based, and started seeing the storm within about 30 minutes of leaving the coast of Florida. It was so massive it just about filled to Gulf of Mexico. It's quite funny really because they had a fasten seat belt sign like you'd have on a commercial airline. It comes on and off, so you'd see it and run back to your seat and then get up again after a minute when it'd gone back off.

Chris - You were experiencing wind speeds one would presume of 110 miles per hour or so. But what was it actually like flying through the eye, and into the eye wall, where the winds are most intense?

Mark - One side of the hurricane wasn't as bad as the other side. It would be rough on one side, but on the other you would get quite beaten up. There was a complete white out when we went through the eye wall. You couldn't see anything but cloud and could only feel the turbulence we were flying through. When we flew into the eye, it calmed down and got a little sunnier. But on the day I was flying there was still a bit of cloud cover, so there were some clouds in the eye.

Chris - What was your most vivid memory of the experience?

Mark - Probably taking hits when we were going through the eye wall. There was one time when my arm flew up above my head from the impact. I think that was one of the times when there was a 2G force there. One of the other planes up there at the same time got hit with a 3.5G impact.

Chris - So how are the measurements collected? Have you got a group of scientists on board with you looking out of the window or is it all down to clever machinery?

Mark - Doppler radar is one of the big tools. They have these instruments called drop suns that they drop out of the bottom of the plane. We had about 17 or 18 people including the flight crew working pretty frantically through the whole nine hour flight. There were lots of computer stations and people looking at radar and other data coming back in.

Chris - Have there been any data produced so far that have led to a better understanding, or is that why there are three planes up there this year rather than the normal one?

Mark - The reason for the three planes is that they have this theory that there are rain bands that in a classic hurricane shape are feeding into the eye. They think those rain bands are actually transferring energy into the eye. Then you go through places in the cycle where the bands on the outside of the eye make their own secondary eye wall and starve the eye of power. This weakens the eye, allowing the secondary eye to become the eye and gain strength. The reason for the three planes was so that there would be people simultaneously at each of these different points. They have somebody flying into the eye, somebody flying on the outside of a rain band and somebody flying into a rain band.


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