Author Topic: NOAA Hurricane Hunters prepare for a new plane, future expansion!  (Read 3700 times)

Offline KB4TEZ

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We all know them and the crucial data they provide. The NOAA Hurricane Hunters are a team of elite pilots, scientists and data analysis that fly missions into and around hurricanes and tropical systems in the Atlantic basin. Their goal - to learn more about a specific storm or to provide research on the development of tropical cyclones.

Their trusty planes - two WP-3D Orion Aircraft and one Gulfstream G-IV jet - have long been relied on to achieve the scientific data collection they're after. But like everything else, these aircraft have a lifespan and their G-IV jet, known as Gonzo, is nearing it's sundown.But NOAA planned for this. And while Gonzo only has a few years left with the Hurricane Hunters, NOAA is already hard at work in Lakeland, Florida, preparing for its replacement - a new Gulfstream 550.  HOW DID IT START?

"The public and the politicians actually have seen the value in the data", said Captain Chris Sloan. Sloan is the Commanding Officer of NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center in Lakeland, Florida. It's the headquarters for all of NOAA's aircraft operations.

"[Congress was] quick to get on board with making sure that aircraft has a replacement", said Sloan.

The process began in 2016. NOAA saw a need to replace their current G-IV because of it's age.

Gonzo, their current G-IV jet, was purchased in 1995. It's seen its refurbishments over the years, in order to keep up with regular maintenance checks and with the ever changing technological world. But it still has its limitation.

NOAA wanted to find a suitable successor for their high-flying laboratory. Something so advanced, so high-tech, that their mission for scientific data collection of tropical, and non-tropical systems, could not only continue but advance over the years to come.

The Gulfstream 550 does just that.


"The G550 flies higher, flies faster and longer than the G-IV, so that in and of itself is an improvement over the current platform," said Sloan.

It's these three basic improvements that already make the G550 a suitable successor to the G-IV. But with a longer fuselage, more weight capacity and a higher ceiling, it also allows NOAA to continue to produce data for high-tech experiments that the G-IV just simply can't carry out.

The G550 is rated for a ceiling of 51,000 feet. That means the jet can reach a cruising altitude of that height. To put that in perspective, most commercial airlines cruise at an altitude between 38,000 and 42,000 feet.

The current G-IV has a ceiling of 45,000 feet. High enough to get good upper air data when a tropical system is developing, but not high enough for NOAA.

"That extra 6,000 feet of data is really of interest to forecasters and researchers," said Sloan. "There's a lot to be gleamed from that extra 6,000 feet above our current altitude."

Upper air data, specifically of that the G-IV jet can provide, is of crucial importance to forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.  The G-IV jet flies above and around a developing tropical system, in order to sample the environment the storm is moving into. It drops several pieces of radio equipment, known as dropsondes, along a pre-determined flight route. These dropsondes contain a radio transmitter along with several weather instruments, like thermometers, hygrometers, and a GPS tracker. That tracker not only tracks the location of the dropsonde as it falls from the aircraft to the surface of the ocean, but the location data can also help determine the wind speed and wind direction at various levels of the atmosphere.

All this data gets fed into the hurricane models, to predict a more accurate forecast of the storm in question. While the Air Force Hurricane Hunters, as well as NOAA's WP-3D Orion Aircraft also drop radiosondes, they drop them at a much lower altitude as they're meant to sample the wind speeds of a storm closer to the surface.

It's why it's so critical to get a high-altitude jet, like the current G-IV, to survey a system. Dropsondes deployed by this jet fall from a very high altitude, providing a better picture of the atmosphere the storm is moving into, from the ground up.

Having a jet that can fly even higher just means more data for these hurricane models. And the more data, the better.

On top of a higher altitude, the G550 will also be outfitted with a suite of instruments that NOAA and their team of research scientists will use to further our future in weather prediction.

The G550 is slatted to be outfitted with a boom pole, similar to that the current WP-3D Orion aircraft have. This boom pole will get the weather sensor away from the aircraft, in undisturbed air. This provide a better, more accurate, picture of the atmosphere they're studying.    It will also be outfitted with the top of the line computer systems, allowing research scientists in the plane to easily and quickly preform their experiments.

One of the biggest additions the G550 will see is the addition of a new dual Doppler radar.

It's going to be an improvement over the current system...Increased resolution, range and overall operability.
This radar will provide a better picture of the inner workings of a tropical system, especially while it's out over the open waters of the Atlantic, out of reach of near-shore Doppler radar sites. This data, like all the other data, can also be fed into the hurricane modeling.


According to Sloan, NOAA already owns the aircraft. It's currently sitting in a Gulfstream hanger back in Mississippi. The aircraft, essentially a high-end business jet right now, will be flown to Lakeland, Florida in late fall 2023, with it becoming operational by hurricane season 2024.

"Once it shows up on station here," said Sloan, "our crews here will begin the integration process. And the integration and validation process should take 6 months."

That process will involve flying various flights into weather patterns in and around Florida during the winter season. Cold fronts, developing coastal storms, long stretches of dry weather. While not as flashy as a hurricane or tropical storm, these weather patterns will provide real world experience for the scientists to test out the instruments and the flight readiness of the jet, before it arrives on station ready to fly a tropical mission.


It's the first new hurricane hunter NOAA has taken ownership of since 1995. While they've received other aircraft over the years, these lighter aircraft are known for more tranquil weather missions - surveying damage after a storm or providing aerial data for scientists studying coastal weather impacts.

But Sloan says if you're hoping to see NOAA expand their fleet, you may be in luck.

"If we have one and we prove it works and our systems are good, if not better than the previous version, then we'll role into a redundant aircraft," said Sloan.

This is big for NOAA. The only other agency to fly into hurricanes, gathering crucial data when every second counts, is the Air Force. They have a fleet of 10 WC-130J aircraft that fly in and out of the center of the storm. The high volume of these aircraft mean the Air Force is relied upon a lot more to fly hurricane missions, especially when multiple systems are in the basin at once.

NOAA wants to change that. Since hurricane seasons in recent years have gotten busier and busier, they want to expand their fleet so they can fly multiple missions on multiple fronts at once.

That starts with this Gulfstream 550. While NOAA has two low level aircraft, their WP-3D Orion, they only have one upper air jet. By adding a second Gulfstream 550, they can fly two upper air missions at once, which can allow for the collection of critical weather data when the United States may be threatened by multiple systems at once.

If they can prove this planes worth to Congress, they could have a second one within years of the initial rollout of this jet. "It's kind of the Holy Grail for us," said Sloan.

But that's not all.

"We also have bigger plans as well," said Sloan. "We have to recapitalize the P3's".

That's right. Their two WP-3D Orion Aircraft are going to reach their end of life in 2030. That means NOAA needs to replace both of these aircraft, aptly named Kermit and Miss Piggy, by then or risk a gap in data.

The WP-3D Orion are no longer a plane used by the US Navy. NOAA has heavily relied on the Navy for years for maintenance of these aircraft. Sloan says NOAA's leadership in Washington is already hard at work with their partners to find a suitable replacement for these two aircraft.

He said NOAA would like to get more in line with their partners at the Air Force, perhaps looking at purchasing WC-130J aircraft. But Sloan says they of course would have their differences.

I always tell people we can go out and do recon for the hurricane center and tack on research but you can't go out there and not do research.
While the question of what aircraft could replace the WP-3D Orion's may not have an answer yet, we know for a fact that NOAA will be looking to add to their fleet once again.

"We have to have new aircraft online, fully operational by 2030," said Sloan. "Or there will be a data gap there."

Sloan says NOAA is looking into purchasing 4 replacement aircraft to expand their low-level fleet, similar to the hopes of purchasing a second upper-air jet, because of the increased volume in storms and missions they've been flying in recent years.

"The Muppet list starts dwindling down pretty quick when you look at all those new aircraft coming online," said Sloan.


NOAA has a pretty unique name list for their aircraft. Unlike the Air Force, NOAA's fleet of planes is named after three well-known childhood stars - Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and Gonzo - three of the world famous Muppets created by Jim Henson.

"It's a great question," said Sloan.

NOAA didn't always use the Muppet naming when they first got their aircraft.

"Our P3s came off the line in 1975 and 1976," said Sloan. "The name for the P3 in the Navy is Sky Pig, because it is. It's slow, it's cumbersome, it eats a lot of gas.

According to Sloan, NOAA was out at an airshow one day and was showing off the aircraft to someone who happened to be a designer and artist for the Muppets.

"They thought it was pretty funny [it was named sky pig]," said Sloan. "It kind of stuck in their head, 'Sky Pig' - why can't we do in WWII and all the aircraft have nose art and a name?"

And so Miss Piggy got her name.

"Well Miss Piggy is not alone. Her boyfriend is Kermit, and there's two P3s, so Miss Piggy and Kermit kind of stuck," said Sloan.

When NOAA took ownership of their current G-IV jet, they continued the tradition, bestowing the name Gonzo to the jet.

So what name will this new G550 have?

"So we haven't made the determination yet," said Sloan. "I have my personal opinions as well, what I'd like to see on there."

So we'll have to wait a bit longer for the Muppet naming. But regardless of what name this aircraft gets, NOAA is ready to take to the skies, just like Super Gonzo.