There is only one way to know for sure what a hurricane is doing: Fly into it to measure its force.
It's all in a day's work for the Air Force Reserve's hurricane hunters. That day begins early, hours before dawn, when a six-person crew climbs aboard a Hercules C-130 transport. The crew has to penetrate the eye wall of the hurricane (with 115 m.p.h crosswinds, that can whip up waves more than five stories high) at 10,000 feet, to drop a pack of meteorological instruments by parachute.
They are tracking hurricane Luis, prowling the Atlantic 600 miles off the Eastern Seaboard. Total flying time: 11 hours, 5 minutes, much of it boring, some of it with all the excitement of being in a free-falling elevator.
Ten thousand feet represents the top of the hurricane. The ride is scarier the lower you fly, says Master Sgt. Billy Gates, of Ocean Springs, Miss. ''We were at 5,000 feet in hurricane Allison over the Gulf of Mexico this year. It was night. We hit a downdraft and ... it took us down 3,000 feet in about 45 seconds. ''
The National Hurricane Center in Miami decides when a storm is serious enough and close enough to land to be monitored by the hurricane hunters during the June-to-November hurricane season. Scientists estimate that the hunters increase the center's accuracy in issuing hurricane warnings by 25 to 30 percent.
Since hurricane forecasters are in the midst of the busiest tropical weather season in decades, they've been keeping the hurricane hunters airborne.
The hunters, all Air Force reservists, are based at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss. and are part of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. They cover tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Central Pacific.
Data are transmitted to a satellite for relay to the hurricane center. The information goes into the center's computers to help forecasters predict the hurricane's direction, top winds, and speed.