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.”

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