In the Eye of the Storm

This crew regularly flies into hurricanes and sends back crucial data.

St. Elmo’s Fire, with its eerie emanations of iridescent hues, possesses a mystical quality for many. For centuries, sailors either sought shelter or stood in awe of it. But for Greg Bast, the phenomenon is just another part of his job. “It’s aesthetically pleasing, in that it’s kind of neat to watch it, but it can also get a little weird when it discharges and starts running down the side of the airplane and bouncing off the prop tips and everything else,” said Bast, who is an aircraft production controller and WP-3D flight engineer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aircraft Operations Center, which is based near Tampa, Fla., at MacDill Air Force Base.

What seems to be only a flashy light display can be a serious matter for Bast and the rest of the flight crew, each of whom is instrumental in the task of collecting severe weather data that is then used for weather forecasting. The heat generated from the blast and the lightning that follows is often great enough to leave holes and burn marks on the hull of the aircraft, especially around the rivets holding the craft together. “When it bounces off the rivet heads it leaves spot welds all over the airplane, so we have to clean those up, sand them down, and re-treat them for corrosion and stuff,” Bast said.

Hostile Territory
For their plane, a Lockheed WP-3D Orion that has been part of the agency’s fleet since 1975, the toughest challenge comes when it penetrates a hurricane’s eye wall. While the eye of a hurricane is relatively calm, the eye wall can be unpredictably erratic, with winds rising and falling between 190 and 230 knots. Severe wind speed and the possibility of being struck by lightning, hail, and heavy rain are not the only things that can threaten the safety of the crew; because the Coriolis force created by the earth’s rotation causes air currents to curve and go upward, exiting at the top of the storm, the eye wall makes the possibility of being hit by severe vertical wind shears very real.

“Vertical wind shears are the ones that you’re not often able to pick up,” Bast said. “Those are the ones that give you the pretty good ride. We do have a radar that can detect those; the problem is that it’s in the tail and we pretty much have to go through the storm before we can see it.” Depending on the size of the storm (which can reach heights of more than 50,000 feet), the aircraft is flown at a height that is determined to be low enough to still collect necessary data and high enough to minimize the chance of these occurrences, which is usually 1,000 to 10,000 feet.

Staying Alert at ‘O’Dark Thirty’
Usually eight to 10 AOC personnel plus six to nine scientists are on a typical flight. The crew works through an eight- to ninehour flight before carrying out a long, thorough inspection of the plane after landing. O’Dark Thirty—a play on military time that is usually used to describe the hours between midnight and sunrise—presents the unique danger of fatigue affecting their decision-making abilities, which can compromise safety.

Because their jobs demand more than the average 9-to-5 shift, strict practices are put into place to minimize the fatigue factor, especially when Bast and his crewmates are working at O’Dark Thirty. “That time of day, with your circadian rhythms, you’re programmed for sleep. Fatigue sets in, and that can be a time when you can really make some mistakes. You’ve got to be real careful during that period of time,” he said. “We always double-check ourselves during that period of time. If somebody does something, instead of having just one set of eyes look at it, we’ll normally have two sets of eyes look at it just to make sure we’ve done everything properly.”

In addition, Bast added, crews have mandatory 12-hour rest periods between flights, eight hours of which must be used to sleep.

From the outside looking in, it may seem NOAA’s flight crews are unnecessarily putting themselves at risk. Bast said he wants people to understand that the benefits far outweigh the risks, and safety is always a number-one priority. “It’s a funny thing, because a lot of people think, ‘Oh my God, you guys are a bunch of adrenaline junkies,’ and that’s not true. We don’t have any cowboys in this business,” he said. “We don’t have time for that kind of thinking in our business. We just need to be as safe as possible, and that’s what we try to do.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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