Hurricane hunters fly into the storm

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Lt. David Cowan

When a hurricane starts to fire, the brave men and women at the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center in Tampa FL at McDill Air Force Base take planes up into the storm - not only to track where it's come from, but where it's going to, and when it could arrive in our neighborhood.

"Our job here at the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center is to use special tools like the G4 you see behind me, and the P-3 Orion, that are specially modified to fly into hurricanes and collect research and information to help, ultimately, improve the track of the storm, the intensity, and protect lives and property," explained Lt. David Cowan.

To predict where a monster storm might be headed you need several tools. Buoys in ocean are used for surface data. The lower part of the storm is monitored by C-130 aircraft of the US Air Force. The top of the storm is watched over by satellites. Flying around 40-45,000 feet, Lt. Cowan and his crew fill in the gaps between the lower part and the top of the storm. They do this using a device called a sonde.

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Watch how a sonde is deployed

"It has instruments inside it that measure temperature, wind speed, GPS. Some even have really neat features like the sea surface temperature probes. Then it descends down to the surface of the ocean, where it ultimately dissolves over time and collects info and sends it back to the aircraft in real time," said Lt. Cowan.

Other technicians monitor all of the storm data coming in, including the real-time radar images from a tail-mounted radar system. And we can actually show you the planes path as it journeys around the storm on air and on

But when a storm is bearing down on the U.S., and folks are moving out of its path, why would someone want to fly towards it?

"The reward of knowing you're on top of a category 4 or 5 storm and realizing you're truly making an impact for someone on the ground, and it could be myself. I could be flying over a storm and it's impacting my house. My wife is evacuated with my dog and I'm thinking to myself, man, how rewarding is this to be able to help people to get out of harm's way. Whereas a hundred years ago people didn't even know this thing was coming," Lt. Cowan explained.

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