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From Issue #55 November 6, 2014

Storm Warning

From dangerous flights to remotely operated drones, typhoon chasers have come a long way.

By Chris Krupiarz Twitter icon 

My dad didn’t have to tell me the storm could have killed him. Instead, I heard it in his details: water was leaking into the plane’s tail section, crewmen were lighting cigarettes for pilots too focused to light up themselves, and the aircraft was bucking like a jeep driving over the rutted roads back in Guam.

Earlier that day in July 1947, my father and his fellow US Navy typhoon chasers had taken off from Naval Air Station Agana on a mission to track a growing tropical cyclone. After flying several hundred miles north, their converted World War II bomber bounced in the air just 500 feet over a roiling Pacific.

My dad was sitting in the plane’s midsection recording wind speed, barometric pressure, and temperature from the shaking dials and gauges. In the cockpit, the pilots were fighting to reach the storm’s eye to pinpoint its location. But the wind and rain kept punching back like a heavyweight champ, jabbing at the plane’s aluminum skin.

Then the winds stopped; the plane was in the eye. My dad wrote in his memoirs:

What a sensation! Was I dreaming? It was calm with just the noise of the plane’s engines. The ceiling of cirrus clouds was very high. There was a ring of thick clouds forming the eye of the storm.

Unfortunately, reaching the center of the storm was only half the flight. The pilots had to head back to Guam, and the plane was running low on fuel.

The Global Hawk’s hangar

From tracking terror to typhoons

That was the mission of the typhoon chasers: go into and get out of the types of storms that kill. Tropical cyclones — the strongest of which are called typhoons in the Pacific, hurricanes in the Atlantic, and just cyclones in the Indian Ocean — have taken the lives of over a million people since the time of my dad’s flight in 1947. The worst loss of life was in November 1970, when the Bhola cyclone killed as many as 500,000 in East Pakistan.

It’s now possible to call up the predicted paths of active tropical cyclones on a Web site; knowing when one storm will fizzle but another will become a Hurricane Katrina remains tricky. From an airstrip on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, scientists are continuing to try to solve that riddle. This time, they are using technology better known from the battlefields of Afghanistan than from broadcasts of the Weather Channel.

As I stand on the tarmac of the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, a strong breeze sends the Atlantic’s warm and humid salt air across an almost empty runway. In front of me is a 50-foot-long gloss-white plane that is a mishmash of parts. A turbofan engine on top of the aircraft splits a V-shaped rear tail.

Attached on each side are long, lean wings that remind me of blades from a wind farm turbine. The front is ugly, a bulbous nose with no windows — just a blank slate. Of course, no one has to worry about the view. The plane is a Global Hawk unmanned autonomous vehicle, better known as a drone.

“I can sit in this ground station and fly the airplane anywhere in the world,” says Lieutenant Commander Jon Neuhaus, one of the plane’s pilots, who is standing with me. He recently flew the Global Hawk by the Cape Verde islands — near the west coast of Africa and almost 3,500 miles away — talking to air traffic controllers in that time zone as if he were right in the plane.

Neuhaus, a soft-spoken and fit Alabama native dressed in a khaki-colored flight suit, is a member of the officer corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); the agency’s name tells its purview. NOAA has teamed with NASA on the Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel program for the past three years to use the Global Hawks to study tropical cyclone formation in the Atlantic.

NASA received its two drones as hand-me-downs from the large Air Force surveillance fleet. Instead of loading the planes with payloads to watch over North Korea or track terrorists in Afghanistan, NASA reworked the drones to observe tropical cyclones. The planes joined five other types of hurricane hunting aircraft — these managed by NOAA — including the P-3 Orion, a ’60s-era propeller-driven aircraft, and the Gulfstream IV jet, a private plane of the type Tom Cruise uses to dart around the world.

The Global Hawk can perform in a way none of these other planes can, let alone my dad’s rickety 1940s aircraft. High on the list of advantages is flight time: the Global Hawk can log up to 24 hours, almost 10 hours longer than the Orion or Gulfstream. Before this model, scientists would take tropical cyclone data only to come back later to say, “My, how much you’ve grown!” But with the Global Hawk, they can watch the hour-by-hour evolution of a storm.

The drone can also reach altitudes almost three times as high as the Orion. “We fly extremely high, about 55,000 [feet], and as it burns fuel, we get up to about 65,000,” says Neuhaus, who has also piloted the Orions and Gulfstreams. That’s about five miles higher than a typical cruising altitude for a passenger airliner. From that altitude, the scientists back at Wallops can see the entirety of the storms.

As for its reach, Neuhaus adds, “It’s called Global Hawk for a reason, because it can fly pretty much anywhere on the globe in one flight.”

Inside the control room

A mighty wind

The Hawk’s altitude, reach, and flight time over the storm enable scientists to claw deeper into tropical cyclones to find out why and how they evolve. The bullet points of storm formation are well known to researchers. A tropical cyclone begins in the Atlantic with a few gusts of wind over warm equatorial water. From there it grows from disturbance to depression to storm, and finally, when sustained winds hit 74 mph, it’s labeled a hurricane.

Going from bullet points to fully fleshed-out paragraphs is where the Global Hawk comes in. Earlier in the day, NASA’s Dr. Scott Braun, the program’s principal investigator, had given a briefing about why the team was at Wallops. He described the science objectives as looking at how the storm acts inside itself and what role the outside environment plays in formation.

One focus of the study is the controversy of the Saharan Air Layer, a hot, dry, dusty air mass that is driven off of North Africa by tropical winds. For a tropical cyclone to become a hurricane, the warm, moist air near the ocean’s surface needs to rise. That air is replaced, creating a vertical circulation within the storm. The rising air then cools at higher altitudes, dropping moisture.

The Saharan Air Layer inverts this. Instead of warmer air at the surface, the lower-level air is cooler. Scientists suspect that as the Saharan Air Layer moves over the cooler ocean air, the desert air presses down to squash the lower-level winds moving up. This in turns reduces the number of hurricanes. But while the Saharan Air Layer acts as a suppressor, it can help a storm too. The air mass increases ocean wave action, a factor that can aid hurricane formation.

Braun showed a PowerPoint slide covering the three payloads onboard the Global Hawk used to study storms. While my dad’s instruments were simple dials and gauges, the Global Hawk payloads are computer-driven bundles. Back on the runway, I can’t see the instruments hidden under the plane’s composite fuselage, but I do recall where Braun pinpointed the three payload locations.

At the front is a laser that targets the clouds beneath the plane. Changes in the light’s energy reflection show scientists where the desert dust is concentrated. In the middle of the plane is a sounder, tracking emitted thermal radiation to measure temperature and water vapor in the clouds.

In the back is what Braun called “the most valuable instrument.” He described the payload as containing 88 “little tubes not much bigger than a paper towel roll, with a variety of electronics inside.” When over the storm, the Global Hawk drops the tubes one by one, with up to eight descending at a time. The tubes travel by parachute down to the ocean surface. Along the way, the devices measure temperature, humidity, pressure, wind speed, and wind direction and relay the data back to the Global Hawk.

Dropping stuff out of the sky while also flying over a hurricane takes a lot of team coordination. Braun, Neuhaus, and the rest of the project team operate the plane from Global Hawk Operations Center East. A NASA employee lets me into the ops center. Later this evening, around seven, the room will be full of scientists and engineers, as the Global Hawk takes off en route to a tropical disturbance. The science team has been eyeing an Atlantic cloud formation, and they believe that the conditions are right for it to form the next hurricane, Edouard. Now, though, only a few lights are on and the room is quiet, the calm before hunting the storm.

Global Hawk

The stars as my guide

In the back of the control center is the payload room. Two rows of monitors, typically only seen in this quantity in the computer display area at a Best Buy, allow scientists to watch their instruments and react to the weather conditions. Up front, separated from the payload room by a glass wall, is the cockpit room. There, below a black and red sign displaying times from around the world, are the mission director and pilots’ positions.

There is no wheel to fly the plane like in my father’s aircraft. Instead, at the pilots’ station, Neuhaus and his fellow flyers control the Global Hawk with a keyboard and a mouse. The pilots select the flight plan by clicking waypoints on the screen like measuring distance on Google Maps. This instructs the plane to fly from Point A to Point B to Point C. The pilots do not operate the plane’s control flaps; onboard software does that. Neuhaus says it’s “very much like flying a manned aircraft on autopilot all the time.”

While the plane controls the mechanics of flying on its own, Neuhaus is observing images collected by the Global Hawk at 30-second increments to see the plane’s path. The low frame rate results in a choppy video, like that from a security camera. But the view is enough to see if there are any parts of the storm that look more interesting than the current direction.

While flying, Neuhaus is also talking with other pilots and air traffic controllers in the drone’s local area. To do that, the Wallops Island ground station sends his voice to a satellite in space. The spacecraft then relays the communication to the drone’s antenna hidden under the plane’s big nose. From there, the Global Hawk transmits Neuhaus’s voice over traditional aircraft radio frequencies. From the perspective of local air traffic controllers and nearby pilots, Neuhaus seems to be in the Global Hawk cockpit.

Along with flying the plane, team members talk to each other to ensure the flight acquires the most scientific data possible. The team includes a mission director, four to six scientists running and observing the payload operations, six to nine scientists for mission planning, a payload manager to coordinate between everyone, and a computer person to make sure nothing crashes, both literally and figuratively. “The team is very large,” says Neuhaus. “There’s nothing unmanned about an unmanned aircraft.”

I wonder if Neuhaus, who has thousands of hours of crewed aircraft experience, finds it frustrating not to have a stick and rudder. “It’s challenging, less than frustrating,” he says. “You’re constantly thinking like you would in a manned airplane. The difference in an unmanned aircraft is you really need to stay ahead of it.”

The author’s father (far left) in his typhoon-chasing days

The sound of thunder

As I take a sweaty walk back to my car, high clouds dot the blue sky. My dad would have known the names of the clouds; he loved weather. When I was eight or nine, while my mom collected my brothers and sisters to take them to our crawlspace during a tornado warning, my dad brought me to the front porch to watch. We saw the black clouds roll above our neighbor’s huge oak, and lightning strikes on the horizon flashed like distant artillery. As he described the weather and held me tight, a love of storms passed between us.

Before he died, my father was the oldest member by a decade or two of his local Apple User Group. I am sure he would have enjoyed seeing the technology used by those who have followed in his storm-chasing wake. Despite flying into tropical cyclones, I never saw my dad as a risk taker — other than trying to raise seven kids. But I suspect his fascination with the weather is what drove him to chase typhoons and what most likely drives the NOAA and NASA scientists today.

My father and his crew did make it out of that storm, but, without enough fuel to fly back to Guam, the pilot diverted to Tokyo. After landing, the crew headed downtown. My dad writes in his memoirs that Tokyo had “neon signs everywhere, streets filled with people, kids and cars, as if a war had never taken place.” Meanwhile, back over the darkened Pacific, nature was still churning the ocean, daring future flyers to discover the tropical cyclone’s secrets.

Contemporary photos by the author; others, courtesy of the author.

Chris Krupiarz works as a spacecraft flight software engineer for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Originally from Michigan, he now lives in Ellicott City, Maryland, with his wife and two kids. In his spare time he enjoys reading and writing, walking in the woods with the family beagles, and creating fictional sporting events with his sons.

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