Life of a Hurricane Rider

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.

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