Over Grand Bahama Island
It's nearly 4 p.m. when Capt. Travis White guides his Air Force C-130 into a sweeping U-turn.
As the horizon tilts, the view from the flight-deck windows shifts from blue skies to popcorn-shaped squall clouds that pile against the slate-gray wall of a distant hurricane Georges.
"Looks pretty nasty," says a crewmember over the aircraft's intercom as the plane straightens and takes aim for the heart of the storm.
Flying into nasty weather is the stock in trade of the US Air Force's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. Based at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., the Air Force Reserve unit provides much of the information that the National Hurricane Center in Miami uses to craft and update its tropical watches and warnings.
"The 53rd is our main workhorse for hurricane reconnaissance," says Naomi Surgi, a project specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Washington. "Even with sophisticated technologies in satellites" and other advanced weather tools, "there's no substitute for penetrating storms."
That's the job of the squadron's 10 C-130s. As hurricanes near America's coast, these 100-foot-long, modified cargo planes fly into the storms in a round-the-clock operation. If the conditions are right, the 53rd launches a mission every three to six hours, with each flight lasting as long as half a day.
On this mission, several of the eight crewmembers are full-time reservists - the rest have kept their day jobs. "They're just regular people," shouts Senior MSgt. Robert E. Lee, one of the crew's full-timers, as he tries to make himself heard over the engine noise and through the ear plugs handed out before takeoff.
When he's not chasing hurricanes, Captain White flies for Continental Airlines. His co-pilot, Capt. Bucky Lane, flies for American. And Sgt. Steve Day, who will gather and relay data from weather instruments dropped into the storm, spends most of his year working as a game warden for the state of Alabama.
Usually, the crew would have flown through the hurricane's eye twice in the past four hours. But the storm has dawdled over Cuban territory, and the crew is forbidden to enter Cuban air space. (Only NOAA's fleet - two P-3 Orions and a Gulfstream jet - is allowed to fly over Cuba.) So the crew has spent much of the day probing the storm's northern reaches.
Word has come, however, that the eye may have moved far enough into international air space to make a quick pass or two before the plane runs low on fuel and must head home.
As the C-130 makes its approach to the eye - a bumpy ride that would have commercial airline passengers buckling their seat belts and stowing their tray tables - Sergeant Day grins and says, "Someone ought to call Havana and have them look the other way for a couple of minutes."
Behind the humor lies a concern. The plane will penetrate the eye for only a short distance before making a sharp turn to avoid Cuban air space. Yet Miami needs to know exactly where the storm center is and what the winds are like to produce the most accurate picture of the storm's path and strength.
When the plane nears the eye, Day takes a seat in front of a console that will record data from instrument packages called dropsondes, which are ejected from the bottom of the plane when it reaches the center of the eye.
The devices he'll use - which measure air pressure, temperature, humidity, and wind speed as they fall - are a significant improvement over their predecessors.
Older models were unable to make useful measurements much below 2,000 feet, leaving forecasters in the dark about winds at the surface - the winds that directly affect people, buildings, and waves. In addition, the older dropsondes took readings every 50 meters.
New versions use navigation signals from global-positioning system satellites, allowing them to measure wind speeds all the way to the surface. And they send back readings every two or three meters, giving a more detailed look at how the storm's effects change with altitude.
Yet for all the high-tech weather tools, "much of what we do involves looking out the window," says Maj. Christa Clynch, the mission's weather officer, as she scans the ocean surface 5,000 feet below. The relative number of whitecaps, their persistence, and the turquoise patches of seawater the roughest ones leave behind allow her to estimate the wind speeds at the surface.
Other procedures have also helped storm-track and intensity forecasts become increasingly accurate with longer lead times, NOAA officials say. Since the introduction of the Gulfstream jet - which can measure conditions around the storm at 40,000 to 45,000 feet - landfall forecasts have improved by up to 25 percent, while intensity forecasts have improved by some 32 percent, NOAA's Dr. Surgi says.
Still, hurricanes can spring surprises, suddenly changing direction or intensity. Surgi notes that in 1992, Hurricane Andrew's rapid spin-up just before landfall meant having to evacuate another 250,000 people on short notice.
With so much riding on the information they provide, the hurricane hunters of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron remain fiercely proud of their work, says Lee, who has flown hurricane-hunter missions since 1983. He recalls Hurricane Hugo's devastating landfall in 1989 and the questions his crew asked itself - "Did we give Miami enough of the right kind of information? Could we have done more?"
The plane has time for one more pass through Georges's center. Focused on the screen monitoring the data, Lee and Day exchange a thumbs-up as the readings appear.
"It's getting stronger," Lee yells, pointing to the barometric pressure.
As the C-130 heads back to Keesler Air Force Base, it crosses Key West for the second time that day. Lightning flashes in the evening sky as the first signs of Georges's fury appear in the Keys. A day later, the Keys would feel the full brunt of Georges. And forecasts of its track into the Gulf of Mexico would send the 53rd scrambling for safer bases.
With so much riding on the information they provide, the hurricane hunters are fiercely proud of their work.