Aug. 26, 2011 -- Our mission: travel to the center of Hurricane Irene.
We left Keelser Airforce Base Thursday at 9 a.m., on a specially equipped military transport plane. Our flight to Irene was four hours there, and we knew we had arrived when the sky turned dark and the plane started to shake. A military photographer on board got sick.
Major Gen. James T. Rubeor, a seasoned hurricane hunter, tells me they start monitoring these storms once they cross 55 longitude West, far in the Atlantic Ocean.
"We track them all the way until they make landfall," he says.
We were flying at 10,000 feet, safely above the destructive winds at the ocean's surface, but we were still flying low enough to face 100 mile-per-hour wind gusts that rocked our plane, and occasionally sent people scrambling.
The scientists and pilots on board, from the U.S. Air Force Reserve, were shooting canistors into the storm clouds from a hole in the floor of the plane. It sounded like an explosion each time the canistors were fired.
Inside the canistor were sensors that beamed back information to the computers on the plane.
It takes the canistor just five minutes to hit the ocean floor but, in that short time, those little cylinders provide a wealth of information.
On our flight, we learned that the hurricanes pressure was dropping, which meant the storm was strengthening. The eye was forming, and the eye wall was now miles thick. The hurricane is now 200 miles wide. The water below the storm is a balmy 85 degrees, and is feeding the hurricane.
They're collecting real-time data, and sending it to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Fla., by satellite.
Maj. Ivan Deroch tells me this is all happening in real time.
"This is the only way to get it," he said. "It allows them, to make a more accurate forecast."
The storm is currently moving along the path forecasters in Miami had predicted. It was hugging the Florida coastline, but far enough out to sea to spare Florida the worst.
We crossed the eye of the storm several times before leaving, but outside of the turbulence, it was relatively uneventful.
We were expecting to see clear skies and sun, but all we saw were clouds.
Our experts pointed out that during most of our trip through the storm, you couldn't see anything, and the reason we could suddenly see clouds is because there was finally distance in the sky to see them.
All of sudden, when we looked down, we could see the ocean.