With a hurricane approaching, most people would want to board a plane to fly as far away possible.
But not the crew of NOAA 43, the National Weather Service's hurricane hunter: It heads straight for the eye of the storm.
Last week, as Hurricane Gustav churned its way toward the United States, "Nightline" hopped aboard a predawn flight from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., popping air sickness pills before the plane even took off.
The flight plan would take us through the eye of the storm three times.
Federal hurricane researchers have been flying into the eyes of hurricanes for more than 50 years. As their understanding improves, so have the forecasts. Satellites, ground radar and computerized buoys at sea are essential, but if they don't have an accurate analysis of how the storm is behaving, they can't put together an accurate forecast.
Former Navy pilot Mark Nelson is at the controls this morning. He learned to navigate a hurricane's brute force from veteran pilots. He knows people think he's a daredevil, but he insists the flights are completely safe.
"I think if you are not a little bit apprehensive, and if it doesn't make the hair on your neck stand up a little bit, that means you are complacent, and that's not good," Nelson said. " So I would say we are cautious not scared."
Nelson is on one of three hurricane hunter planes, which are operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They are the most sophisticated airborne weather laboratories in the sky.
Data, Data and More Data
There are half a dozen work stations in the back of the plane, each with a computer and monitors filled with radar images and ever-changing data parameters. Jack Parrish, NOAA's chief meteorologist, sits behind one of the work stations on this flight. He has been working on hurricane hunters since 1980. He figures he's flown through almost 500 hurricane eye walls.
He tells us the radars, sensors and computers onboard collect a staggering 250 types of data. On the tale of the plane sits a huge Doppler radar; it is like a sophisticated CT-scan, taking horizontal and vertical images of the hurricane once every six seconds.
"We are trying to get as much of a profile of a storm as we can," Parrish said. "The strides that have been made in the last several decades have to do with track forecasting -- where the storm is going."
Better Forecasting Means More Warning for Residents
The gains in forecasting, Parrish said, have been impressive.
"It has doubled in accuracy over the last 15 years," he said. "It is increasing at about a mile per year right now. So we're getting better and better on where the storm is going."
But, he added, there is only limited progress on determining how strong it's going to be when the storm hits land.
Here's how good forecasting can be these days: The five-day forecast for Hurricane Gustav said it would hit just west of New Orleans. And five days later that's exactly where it hit. The forecasts aren't always this perfect, but this kind of accuracy was unthinkable even 20 years ago, Parrish said.
He added that forecasts can be that precise because of tools like the drop sonde, a computerized probe shot into the storm winds from the plane's belly.
"It basically goes down on a parachute at a steady rate," Parrish explained. "It measures temperature, pressure humidity and GPS-derived winds from the instrument. Goes down hits the water, sinks -- it's gone, but during that process it gives a vertical profile of wherever we drop it."
As the drop sonde parachutes its way through the searing winds of the hurricane, it transmits data back to the hurricane hunter two times per second. The plane sends that and radar data to a satellite, which instantly sends it to an Earth station in Camp Springs, Md., where it is distributed around the world for analysis.
Team of Scientists on Call
The National Hurricane Center in Miami is one of the places that constantly monitors the hurricane hunter data. Chris Landsea is head of weather science at the hurricane center. He shows us a computer screen that allows him to see the data the hurricane hunters are collecting high in the sky hundreds of miles away.
"This comes in a few seconds after it is collected," Landsea said. "Here it is collected and analyzed and is provided to the hurricane specialist so they can see where the storm is, how strong it is and the size of the storm."
Every three hours as a hurricane approaches land, forecasters at the hurricane center gather to pool their assessments and issue an update to the public.
More than two dozen different forecasts models are run on super-computers here in the United States and around the world.
Forecasters learn to trust some computerized models more than others, but ultimately they find a consensus of the best models is usually the best predictor.
Eye of Hurricane: 30-Mile-Wide Oasis
Back aboard the hurricane hunter, the pilots are steering the plane into the eye. Another drop sonde is released into the clouds below.
From the cockpit, we get a front-row view of something only a handful of people have ever seen up close: the hurricane's eye wall. The plane flies straight through it. In this case the eye is a 30-mile-wide oasis of a calm with blue sky above and roiling sea below, surrounded by storm clouds on all sides.
Aboard the plane the data pours in. And soon there will be more. This summer the federal government allocated $17 million to a new Hurricane Forecasting Improvement Project. The goal is to have an accurate seven-day hurricane track forecast within 10 years and more than a 50 percent improvement in forecasts that can track a hurricane's intensity.
More than six hours after it left Tampa, NOAA 43 returns. Before it has even landed its data have been analyzed and updated forecasts have already been issued to an anxious public.