Retrofit needed to keep U.S. hurricane hunters flying into storms

A pair of aging airplanes that have flown into more than 100 hurricanes to provide data for U.S. meteorologists are to begin receiving a retrofit to extend their lifespan, though officials stress storm monitoring will not be impacted by the overhaul.

Work on the two so-called hurricane hunters will be staggered over multiple years, ensuring one plane is always available to track a storm’s intensity and path, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which operates the Florida-based planes.

The retrofit will not affect the U.S. ability to perform storm reconnaissance, officials say, noting that the bulk of the such missions are carried out by a fleet of 10 specially equipped WC-130J “Hercules” Air Force planes based in Biloxi, Mississippi.

NOAA’s two planes, which also fly hurricane reconnaissance missions, are equipped with additional weather research equipment.

The retrofit comes at the peak of hurricane season, after NOAA last week predicted fewer storms than normal would affect the Atlantic region for the rest of the year.

Without $35 million in upgrades, the planes would be obsolete by 2019. The enhancements extend their lifespan to 2030 and improve fuel efficiency as the planes fly into winds that can exceed 150 miles (240 km) per hour.

“It’s like riding a giant wooden roller coaster,” said Commander Devin Brakob, a NOAA aircraft specialist who has flown into 15 storms over the past 10 years.

NOAA’s hurricane hunter aircraft, Lockheed WP-3D Orions built in 1976, have become famous in coastal communities over their decades of risky missions. Each carries radar, weather sensors and computers used to track the storm in real time.

Beginning this month, NOAA will install new computers and electronics systems. Work on their wings would begin next March.

The improvements are part of $310 million in federal aid following Hurricane Sandy provided to the Department of Commerce, which funds NOAA. The two hurricane hunters help prepare the eastern and central United States for storms, feeding data to forecasters at NOAA’s National Hurricane Center in Miami.

The planes, stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on Florida’s west coast, typically alternated 12-hour flights through an approaching hurricane. Starting next year one of the hurricane hunters will be available for round-the-clock operations, with two different flight crews, while the upgrades are installed on the other plane, said NOAA spokesman David Hall.

(The story corrects headline, paragraphs 1, 3 and 4 to show Air Force flies 10 hurricane hunter planes.)

(Editing by Letitia Stein, Alden Bentley and Eric Walsh)

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