As Hurricane Irma surged toward Florida and the southeastern United States in early September, the country braced for the impact of the Category 4 storm, one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes in recent memory. People fortified their homes, stocked up on food or evacuated inland, away from the path of the storm.
But not Commander Scott Price ’99, a pilot in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Commissioned Officer Corps.
He traveled closer to the storm, to the island of Barbados in the Caribbean. Price is a hurricane hunter, an elite group of NOAA pilots that flies into hurricanes to collect data for weather forecasts and scientific research.
From Barbados, he flew east, directly into the developing storm. In total, he made six flights into Irma while it was a Category 5 storm, providing essential data for weather forecasters, emergency personnel and NOAA scientists before the storm hit the U.S. mainland. This information determined how cities and states prepared for Irma, whether evacuations were necessary and, ultimately, helped save lives and protect physical structures during the storm.
Price says he vividly remembers his first flight into a hurricane. It was Hurricane Kyle, in 2008, and the storm was still a tropical storm when Price made his approach.
“It was about 3 o’clock in the morning, so we got to the storm during the hours of darkness. We could see the storm on the radar, but not out the window, until a flash of lightening lit up the sky,” he recalls. “I could see the outlines of the massive clouds we were about to fly into. It is a little bit surreal, because every instinct you have as a pilot is to avoid bad weather.”
And though the NOAA pilots are highly skilled and trained, it is difficult to simulate flying in a hurricane. “The first time you fly into a hurricane really is the first time,” Price says. “Once you get the first one under your belt, it establishes the expectations. I’m not sure the flights get any easier, but they are possible, and really critical, at the end of the day.”
Price’s flights are critical because the best data comes from inside a storm itself, rather than satellites roaming above the earth, he says.
He usually gets about 48 hours notice before deploying for a hurricane flight, which can last up to nine hours. Multiple pilots come on each flight, so they can rotate during what is an intense ride.
“It can be extremely turbulent, as you can imagine, which is certainly uncomfortable. Oftentimes we end up getting bounced around pretty good,” Price says. “It is very loud, with both the wind and the rain, which comes down hard on the airplane and can make a lot of noise. We are very focused on getting the airplane in and out safely, which requires flying at a very specific air speed so we don’t stall or overstress the airplane.”
Price concentrates on keeping the aircraft steady during the flight — despite wind speeds of more than 100 miles per hour pushing the plane up and down. They fly directly through the eye of a hurricane, where the storm stills, and there can even be glimpses of blue sky. But to get to those few miles of calm, the plane must make it through the eyewall, the site of the most severe weather in the storm.
It all takes a discipline and focus that he honed during his years at Holy Cross, balancing his mathematics major with the demands of Naval ROTC.
Price attended Holy Cross on a Naval ROTC scholarship and spent nine years as a pilot in the U.S. Navy after graduation. The plane he flew in the Navy, the Lockheed WP-3D Orion, is what NOAA uses for hurricane flights, because of its durability, size and fuel capacity. The plane can fly for eight hours without refueling, and there is ample space for the research team and their instruments, both inside and on the plane itself. When he transferred from the Navy in 2008, Price joined the NOAA Corps and continued flying the Lockheed WP-3D Orion.
Along with the hurricane hunter role, Price is also the chief of safety standardization and training for the nine aircraft and 110 personnel at NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center in Lakeland, Florida. Safety is a year-round focus for Price and his team, while hurricane season typically lasts from June 1 to Nov. 30. Outside of that season, he will fly on missions to collect data on other types of storms — like those that generate tornadoes — as well as track flooding and changes in the U.S. coastline.
Price says it requires a team effort to successfully complete a flight into — and out of — a hurricane. “If we go into a storm and we don’t collect the data we need to collect, there is no point being there. And if we don’t get out safely, that’s not the right answer either. We have very talented folks, so we can get in, get the data and get back out safely.”
When he considered joining the NOAA Corps, Price was initially hesitant about the hurricane flights, and still experiences some nerves about the unpredictable nature of flying into storms, as opposed to around them.
“I am by no means an adrenaline junkie — probably just the opposite,” he says. “But the uniqueness of the mission and the quality of the people at NOAA made the job attractive.”
His wife, who owns and operates a gymnastics studio, and two daughters always eagerly await news of his safe landing after a storm. The family lives in Tampa, Florida, close to Price’s base in Lakeland.
“Despite all the anxiety, at the end of the day, it is a critical mission,” he says, “and one that I’m very proud to have done for a number of years now.”
How many hurricanes have you flown in? I don’t know the exact number of storms, but I’ve logged 140 flights into and out of the eye of storms. Some missions require us to fly into the same storm multiple times.
How many people are on board your Lockheed WP-3D Orion aircraft when you fly into a hurricane? Our plane can carry up to 21 people, and we usually have about 16, between the pilots, flight engineers and scientists collecting the data.
What type of storms are the most difficult to fly through? Tropical storms, which are developing into hurricanes, can cause some of the roughest, most uncomfortable rides. There are a lot of updrafts and downdrafts as the storm develops, and they cause turbulence.
In your nine years of flying with NOAA, have hurricanes gotten worse or more frequent? We focus on the data collection and less on the why, but I can tell you that we were busier this season than last season. I logged 10 hurricane penetrations last year, and this year, I’m up to 50 so far. It varies greatly on the season — we’ve had very busy seasons and very quiet seasons.
Hurricane season typically lasts from June to November. What kind of missions do you fly during the off-season months? We collect data on coastal mapping, flooding and a number of other environmental things to help NOAA either provide forecast data or manage marine life. This January and February, we’ll collect data on north Atlantic storms, and then we’ll go to Alabama to investigate storms that generate tornadoes.
Written by Maura Sullivan Hill for the Winter 2018 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
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