Life of a Hurricane Rider

— Jim Carswell knows better than most that science doesn’t have to be boring.

Carswell is one of those goofy folks who spend part of their time flying through hurricanes in airplanes built nearly three decades ago. Carswell is an electrical engineer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and he says the trip is a gas.

“It beats any amusement park ride I’ve ever been on,” says Carswell, who likens the experience to whipping around on one of those spinning carnival rides, mounted on a roller-coaster.

Spinning for Science

But he doesn’t do it for the thrills. In this day of satellite surveillance and remotely operated sensors, there’s still no substitute for flying directly through a hurricane and collecting data that could save lives.

This is Carswell’s fourth season working with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hurricane Research Division, and he has made at least 50 flights through hurricanes. That includes last year’s monster, Hurricane Floyd, the most deadly storm to hit the eastern seaboard since 1972. Hurricane Floyd killed 57 people and dumped 15 inches of rain in 24 hours on Wilmington, N.C.

In recent years scientists at the National Hurricane Center have become amazingly adroit at predicting the course of hurricanes.

“Last year they predicted several days in advance that Floyd would turn north on the 13th of September, before hitting Florida, and it did just that,” Carswell says.

But scientists have been less successful at predicting the intensity of the storm, or how far out from the eye hurricane winds will occur, and that has raised serious problems in defining which areas of the coastline will be severely affected.

Knowing When to Cry Wolf

The intensity of Floyd was so unclear that all of the East Coast of Florida was put under warning, and people had to evacuate. That’s not only costly, it raises the specter of yelling wolf too often, causing residents to ignore future warnings to their considerable peril.

The only way to refine that data is to fly through hurricanes, dropping instruments, like radiometers that measure wind speed and precipitation, near the dreaded “eyewall” of the hurricane, where the most ferocious winds are found. The winds in Floyd reached more than 150 miles per hour.

The purpose of Carswell’s specific mission this year is twofold. He hopes to refine the storm data received from satellites, so that experts might be able to analyze the readings more precisely by comparing what the satellites are telling them with what the instruments actually measure. That could ultimately lead to less reliance on manned-missions through hurricanes.

A second goal is to help understand the dynamic nature of hurricanes near the eyewall, because conditions there can change very, very rapidly.

Cool Nerves and a Strong Stomach

In the end, lives could be saved. And that, he says, makes it worth flying through hurricanes.

To set the record straight, Carswell isn’t exactly a white-knuckle flyer. By his own admission he’s one of those passengers who falls asleep on a commercial airliner before the plane takes off, and wakes up when the stewardess punches his shoulder and says it’s time to get off.

But even he had trouble getting his ‘‘flight legs’’ adjusted.

“The first time I flew, I didn’t feel so hot,” he says. “I didn’t toss my cookies, but I didn’t feel so good.”

That was in 1992, and Carswell is now a veteran getting ready for the approaching hurricane season which could have a couple of blockbusters rivaling the monster depicted in the current Hollywood hit, The Perfect Storm.

Hopefully, he won’t see anything like Floyd.

Floyd’s Gaping Eye

“Floyd was amazing, because it was so huge,” he says. It took almost six minutes for the P3, four-engine turboprop to fly through the spooky calm of the eye of the storm.

“You have just enough time to cook a burrito,” Carswell says.

For most hurricanes, a couple of minutes in the eye, and then it’s back to the roller coaster. The flights last 10 hours, and if the storm is close to shore, that means nearly 10 hours of blasting through the wind and the rain.

Each flight begins the same. The aircraft, built in the 1970s but meticulously maintained, hits a little rain, about like that encountered on many commercial airline flights.

“The plane sort of jumps up and down every once in awhile,” Carswell says, but everything, including the 20-member crew, is “bolted down.”

As the craft approaches the eye, winds can be so intense that the plane is almost forced to fly sideways, “crabbing” as much as 30 degrees into the wind just to maintain course. Carswell describes it like this:

“You will have an updraft, so you will feel the plane being pushed up, and then a downdraft, when you will kind of lose your stomach as the plane drops. But at the same time, you’re getting jerked back and forth.”

The rain intensifies so much that “sometimes you can barely see the end of the wing,” and the ride is so tumultuous that he has to force his fingers hard against the keyboard of his laptop, which is also bolted down, just to do his work. He constantly updates the information collected by the sensors, and once a second the data is sent to the National Hurricane Center and other members of the crew through a wireless network.

And then it abruptly ends.

A Momentary Stillness

“We break through the eye, and it’s suddenly very calm.”

But all Carswell has to do is lean through the curved window at his side and look straight down to see huge waves and an ocean that is churning so much it looks like it is being ripped apart.

“It’s spectacular,” Carswell says.

Then, as quickly as it ended, the plane exits the eye and the pounding begins again. It can take 40 minutes to an hour for the aircraft, flying at about 290 miles an hour, to pass through the entire hurricane. Then it adjusts its course, turns around, and plunges through again, completing several passes like the spokes on a wagon wheel.

“Typically, we’ll fly three or four days in a row, and by the time you land you’re really tired,” he says.

The planes do take a beating, but Carswell says he’s a bit reassured by the fact that the maintenance crew also flies on all the missions.

“That gives you confidence they’ve done everything right,” he says.

They haven’t lost a plane, “so far,” Carswell says, and he clearly is a man who enjoys his work.

Still, he doesn’t tell his wife when he’s going to be flying, and he calls her as soon as he’s landed. While he’s away on a mission, he says, “she tends not to watch the news.”

He says he plans to see The Perfect Storm sometime soon. He probably shouldn’t take his wife.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.