We at Maritime Maunder thought our readers might like to know a bit more about the "early warning system" - namely the "Hurricane Hunters" who fly straight into the storms to get up close and personal with the winds, the track, and the information necessary to warn the affected areas about their chances of a hit, direct or otherwise.
Meet Flight Director Jessica Williams, (USAF) who serves on NOAA's Lockheed WP-3D Orion and Gulfstream IV-SP hurricane hunter planes.
Jessica Williams has always thirsted for an understanding about the environment in which we live. As a high school senior deciding on a college, she had the foresight to pursue her interest in weather and the atmosphere. Her compass pointed her to Penn State University. There, Williams joined the United States Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps. Her studies at Penn State concluded with a bachelor's of science degree in meteorology. She bolstered her resume with a master's of science degree in geographic information science from Northwest Missouri State University.
Here's her ride:
When flying on a mission to investigate a tropical cyclone, Williams is responsible for ensuring that the aircraft to which she is assigned is safely navigated through the storm and all the necessary data is collected.
The work, however, begins well before “wheels up.” Mission preparation involves collecting mission objectives from researchers and reviewing operational directives. “From this, we put together a tentative flight plan to accomplish these objectives,” says Williams. “I study the weather pattern, forecasts, and any potential weather hazards based on my training and experience, for the time period and locations we’ll be flying in and around.” She later disseminates this information to the crew in the pre-flight briefing.
Safety is paramount and once airborne, Williams is buckled in for what can be more than an eight-hour flight. “My eyes are on the radars at all times first and foremost, and secondly the data we’re collecting, which gets transmitted to the National Hurricane Center and often ingested into forecast models,” she says.
Here's what she sees outside her window!
Into the storm
As one can imagine, working with hurricanes is anything but predictable. “Flight tracks, plans and objectives often change in flight, so we need to be prepared to discuss whether these changes are safe,” says Williams.
The idea of safely surveying hurricanes almost seems like a contradiction, but the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center team has made it standard operating procedure.
“This means flying right through the eyewall, which contains intense updrafts and downdrafts, extreme precipitation, lightning and often hail,” says Williams. Pre-flight training is essential to preparing the crew for these high-risk environments. “With knowledge of the storm dynamics, an understanding of aviation radar, and lots of experience from the crew we avoid these more dangerous areas.”
Close to home
The focus of her work sometimes can hit pretty close to home, most recently with Hurricane Matthew, “with the track coming so close to Florida and many of us having family and friends on the East Coast.” But she says it’s worth it, especially knowing how quickly the data she and her fellow Hurricane Hunters collect can directly affect people’s lives.
So, Jesssica Williams, Maritime Maunder salutes you and your team of Hurricane Hunters, thanks you for your service, and we hope you have an uneventful season!
Until next time,