Frequently Asked Questions

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Q.How do I become a meteorologist for the NOAA Hurricane Hunters?
A. To become a hurricane hunter, you need to be very good in math and science. This requires getting a Bachelor of Science degree in meteorology from a college/university. Also, it is recommended that you have some knowledge of computer programming. Joining the local chapter of the American Meteorological Society in your area would provide a great opportunity for you to meet other people that have similar interests as you. The meteorologists, as well as the pilots aboard the NOAA aircraft, have a college degree plus experience working in a weather office or weather research group.

Q.How do I become a pilot or navigator for NOAA?
A. Pilots and Navigators for NOAA are commissioned officers in the NOAA Corps ( -- the seventh and smallest Uniformed Service. To become a NOAA Corps officer, one must apply to the Commissioned Personnel Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. After commissioning, completing a 4-month Basic Officer Training Course and serving aboard one of the NOAA research vessels for two years, one can apply to the aviation program. Generally speaking, NOAA Corps officers have to possess solid scientific backgrounds and science degrees from a university.
Q.What are the responsibilites of the flight director?
A. AOC does meteorological airborne science all over the world. This includes winter storm/polar low studies, severe thunderstorm research (tornadoes, MCS, etc.) in the Midwest, cloud physics research, air pollution studies as well as hurricane research. The onboard responsibilities and duties of an AOC flight director include the interpretation of radar displays to ensure flight safety; the monitoring of instrumentation performance; interaction with scientists and AOC crew during a mission; and communication with other aircraft and with personnel on the ground. If there are any onboard emergencies the flight director is the primary focal point for communication between the flight crew and the other crew members and scientists. We have water survival training every 5 years as well as exposure to a rapid de-pressurization in an altitude chamber. The latter is for flying in AOC's Gulfstream IV jet as a flight director.
After a mission, the flight director is responsible for ensuring that the scientists are given some preliminary data products, and to secure the media that contains the archived flight level data (temperatures, pressures, etc.). The flight director is charged with post-flight examination of the flight level data, via computer software, to locate erroneous values. Navigators for NOAA are commissioned officers in the NOAA Corps ( -- the seventh and smallest Uniformed Service. To become a NOAA Corps officer, one must apply to the Commissioned Personnel Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. After commissioning, completing a 4-month Basic Officer Training Course and serving aboard one of the NOAA research vessels for two years, one can apply to the aviation program. Generally speaking, NOAA Corps officers have to possess solid scientific backgrounds and science degrees from a university.
Q. What is a hurricane?
A. A hurricane is a category of tropical cyclone, the general term for all circulating weather systems (counterclockwise is the Northern Hemisphere) over tropical waters. Tropical cyclones are classified as follows:

Tropical Depression. An organized system of clouds and thunderstorms with a defined circulation and maximum sustained winds of 38 mph (33 knots) or less.

Tropical Storm. An organized system of strong thunderstorms with a defined circulation and maximum sustained winds of 39 to 73 mph (34-63 knots).

Hurricane. An intense tropical weather system with a well defined circulation and maximum sustained winds of 74 mph (64 knots) or higher. In the western Pacific, hurricanes are called “typhoons,” and similar storms in the Indian Ocean are called “cyclones.”
Q. Do you fly over the top of the hurricane?
A. No. The top of a hurricane can be over 50,000 feet high, and our aircraft could never get up there (they can go up to 30,000 feet). Besides, the weather we’re interested in is down at the bottom of the storm. Where it will affect the coastline it hits. For this reason, we fly in as low as safely possible. This altitude can be anywhere from 1,000 feet to 10,000 feet.
Q. Do you carry parachutes?
A. No. If we ever had a serious enough situation to consider bailing out over the ocean, we would be better off trying to ditch the aircraft. We do carry life preservers and there are two twenty man rafts containing survival gear stowed in the aircraft’s wings.
Q. What is a dropsonde?
A. It’s a small tube with instruments in it that has a parachute attached. It also has a radio transmitter to send data back up to the airplane. When we get to the center of a hurricane at 10,000 feet, the dropsonde operator will release the “sonde” into the exact center of the eye. Just before it splashes into the water, it sends us its most important data: the pressure in millibars. This is the information the hurricane forecasters use to decide if the storm is getting stronger or weaker.
Q.How do hurricanes form?
A. Hurricanes are products of the interaction between the tropical ocean and the atmosphere. They are powered by heat energy from the sea and are steered by the easterly trade winds and the temperate westerlies as well as by their own energy. Around its core, winds grow with great velocity, generating violent seas. Moving ashore, they sweep the ocean inward while spawning tornadoes and producing torrential rains and floods. Each year on average, ten tropical storms (of which six become hurricanes) develop over the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea or Gulf of Mexico. Many of these remain over the ocean. However, about five hurricanes strike the United States coastline every 3 years. Of these five, two will be major hurricanes (category 3 or greater on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale).
Q. How long does the eye last?
A. A hurricane may sustain an eye for several days. How long one might be in the eye if one were sitting in one place as the hurricane passed over, is a function of two things: How fast is the hurricane moving? Most hurricanes may move along at 10-20 mph, but in extreme cases, they could be moving as fast as 40 mph (pretty rare), or go much more slowly, or even stall out (“quasi-stationary” as they are called). How big is the eye? The average eye is 10-40 miles in diameter, but the extremes would be 5-60 miles wide. It is important to realize that most people who are “hit” by a hurricane never actually get into the eye at all because the storm itself is so large compared to the eye. Those who do encounter the eye usually get the worst winds because they go through the eyewall...twice!
Q. How far inland can storm surge be an immediate problem?
A. It depends on how quickly the terrain rises along your shore. If it is a very low, flat area (like near a river basin), the storm surge would obviously reach a lot further inland than when it runs up against a steeply sloping shoreline. It doesn’t act exactly like a tidal wave, but is a big dome of water perhaps 20 feet or so high. The exact height of a storm surge depends upon so many factors: the strength of the hurricane, how quickly the hurricane is moving, what direction it is moving relative to the shoreline (is it coming straight in, or grazing along an angle?), how rapidly the sea floor is sloping along the shore, the shape of the shoreline, and the astronomical tide. Anything along the shore which isn’t higher than the depth of the storm tide is at risk, which could be many miles in a very flat area. Also keep in mind that the height of the storm surge does NOT include the high of the waves on top of it.
Q. Why is the eye calm?
A. We have to start by looking at the way the air flows into and around a hurricane. The center (eye) of a hurricane is a low-pressure area. Air from outside the hurricane tries to move into the eye to equalize the pressure. What do you call air that moves? Wind! However, the air does not go in a straight line towards the eye. It flows in a curve because of the Coriolis force. This curve becomes even greater near the eye, and eventually the air ends up blowing in a circle around the eye. Most of the air never reaches the eye itself, but instead blows in this ring around the eye called the “eye wall.” A lot of the air then flows upward in the eye wall, and exits the storm at the top. Since the winds end up spinning in a ring around the eye, there isn’t enough left to blow in the eye itself and the eye is relatively calm. The more technical answer is that the circular wind flow in the eye wall is a balance between pressure gradient, Coriolis force and centripetal force. Angular momentum is also a key factor. The air rising in the eye wall also explains why the eye is clear. When air rises, it cools. Cool air can’t hold as much water vapor as warm air, so the extra water falls out of the rising air as rain. By the time the air reaches the top of the hurricane, it is much drier than it was at the surface. Most of the air flows away from the hurricane, but a little of it drops back down in the middle of the hurricane. Since this air is so dry, it makes the eye clear (it doesn’t hold any water to make clouds with).
Q. Can I get a seat on a hurricane flight?
A. Sorry, but only people who are part of the mission are allowed on military and public aircraft. This may include accredited members of the press, provided they are working on a current story involving the storm. If you are an accredited reporter and want to know how to arrange for your involvement in future flights with NOAA hurricane aircraft, contact Lori Bast (813) 828-3310, ext. 3072. Please note that seats are not always available on every flight, and that there is a limit of two seats per media outlet on a given flight. NOAA maintains a lengthy list of requests to fly aboard their aircraft during hurricane missions. If a hurricane is threatening landfall, local media will be given the first opportunity to fly. Due to the dynamics of hurricanes, flight plans can and do change right up until the last minute and flights are often cancelled. All of your contact information (cell numbers, pagers, home/office numbers) is extremely helpful in alerting you to changes.
Q. Is the sea calm in the eye of a hurricane?
A. No. In fact, it can be persuasively argued it's just as bad in the eye as elsewhere in the hurricane, but for different reasons. In the eye, the winds are light to calm, and the wildly blowing sea spray on the surface diminished, but towering swells and seas approach the center from all directions, due to the winds generating them swirling from all directions around the eye. This results in confused, tumultuous seas that no mariner would ever welcome, even if there was a temporary relaxation in the intense winds.
Q. Why aren't the storm planes torn apart?
A. Planes are not structurally destroyed by strong winds while in flight. Airliners routinely fly in jet streams with winds exceeding 150 mph over the US during the winter. It's the shear, or sudden change in horizontal or vertical winds that can destroy an aircraft, or cause its loss of control. That's why we don't fly through tornadoes. In a like manner, we routinely (but never casually) fly in the high wind environment of the hurricane and don't fear it tearing the plane apart. However, we're eternally vigilant to "hot spots" of severe weather and shear that we can often identify on radar and avoid if it's too severe.
Q. Are cruise ships safe from hurricanes?
A. Only if they avoid the hurricane by a healthy margin. No ship is so large, not even an aircraft carrier, that it cannot be dwarfed by an intense tropical cyclone. Not only that, but the large swells produced by a hurricane in the Atlantic, Caribbean or Eastern Pacific, or a typhoon in the western Pacific can generate large swells that can travel thousands of miles from the storm. These swells will not overly hazard a cruise ship, but might make the ship's motion more uncomfortable to those prone to motion sickness.
Q. How is a hurricane tamed?
A. In the natural sense, in four general ways; (1) by moving over cold water that reduces the heat available to power its engine, (2) by moving over land, where the ocean heat is cut off altogether, (3) by encountering strong vertical shear in the atmospheric horizontal winds around the storm, and/or (4) by being surrounded by profoundly dry conditions in the mid-atmosphere, often coming from the Saraha Desert. Nothing we can do in terms of human intervention so far has shown a significant impact on the strength of a hurricane.
Q. What is the difference between typhoons and hurricanes?
A. Where they occur. Typhoons are tropical cyclones west of the International Date Line in the Pacific Ocean, hurricanes east of the Date Line. They're called Cyclones in the Indian Ocean.
Q. What water temperature is needed to sustain a strong hurricane?
A. In most cases, water temperature above 80F (26.5C) and warm water depths of 150 feet (50 meters) as well.
Q. Can helicopters be used in hurricane research?
A. It is unlikely that anyone would attempt to fly a helicopter into a hurricane. Such aircrafts are not built to withstand the severe turbulence encountered in hurricane rainbands and eye walls. One reason is that a helicopter receives all of its lift from its rotating blades, and they are most likely to break off in hurricane conditions. Survival of the aircraft and crew would then be impossible. While commercial type aircrafts have been used in the past to penetrate hurricanes, NOAA and the US Air Force Reserves use sturdier P-3s and C-130s for their research and reconnaissance missions. Both aircrafts are safe and reliable and take the punishment that hurricanes up through Category 5 can dish out.