Hurricane Hunters

Hurricanes and business jets are not an obvious combination. But the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration routinely flies its Gulfstream G-IV around tropical cyclones to gain life-saving weather information. Words: Alasdair Whyte

Just another day in the (Gulfstream G-IV) office for Matthew Nardi. Left: The NOAA Gulfstream’s flight track around Hurricane Dorian in 2019.

HEADING TOWARDS a hurricane in a business jet is never a popular plan for most pilots and aircrew. But it’s just a regular day in the office for Richard ‘Rich’ Henning and Matthew Nardi, from the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA), as they fly above hurricanes in their Gulfstream G-IV to gather life-saving weather data.

CJI quizzed flight director Henning about his role as an airborne meteorologist and his colleague Nardi, who is a pilot with the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). Why did they join NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center and what leads them to fly its Gulfstream IV-SP, nicknamed Gonzo, into extreme weather most other pilots spend their life avoiding?

Regularly operating at 45,000ft, Gonzo’s missions focus on dropping GPS dropwindsondes – parachute-equipped tube-shaped instruments – designed to measure and transmit back to the aircraft data on pressure, temperature, humidity and GPS Doppler frequency shifts. These are used to calculate horizontal and vertical wind components. The vital information is used by the National Hurricane Center and other organisations to deduce life-saving information about hurricanes and tropical storms.

This photo: Shutterstock. All other photos by: Nick Underwood, NOAA

Richard ‘Rich’ Henning, NOAA Flight director

CJI: How did you end up in your role?

Henning: Before I joined NOAA Aircraft Operations Center, I flew as a crewmember for both the US Navy and US Air Force. I studied meteorology at Florida State University and received my Master’s degree in 1997 specialising my research into the processes of hurricane intensification. Therefore, the position of NOAA flight meteorologist, which is also known as flight director, is the perfect blend of my background and interests in both aviation and weather.

CJI: What do people say when they find out your job?

Henning: It’s definitely a conversation piece and certainly not an ordinary job. I temper their excitement by telling them that over 90% of the man hours over the course of a year are spent in analysing and quality control of the data collected while flying, so the actual flying part of the job (in terms of hours every month in a given year) is only a fraction of what I do.

CJI: Have you ever been scared flying on a mission?

Henning: No … I’ve never been scared. The crews are very well-trained and procedures are established well before we ever fly a storm mission. Every hurricane deserves healthy respect. They are all unique and each offers a particular blend of challenges – it’s certainly not ‘one-size-fit-all.’

CJI: Is there a divide between meteorologists like you who are out in the field and ones who work inside?

Henning: No. Some meteorologists specialise in research, others are more operationally-oriented. Everyone needs data to work with and we are the ones who go out and gather it.

CJI: Do you look down on office-based roles because you fly a high-value business jet?

Henning: No. The work done by researchers in offices is critical to advancements in meteorology. That’s especially true for computer modelling of the atmosphere, which is responsible for the largest improvements in weather forecast accuracy.

CJI: Which missions do you enjoy the most – studying hurricanes, atmospheric rivers or clear air turbulence?

Henning: The hurricane mission is certainly the most challenging and exciting. But all the other projects we perform to gather data are vital to important research being conducted on a variety of atmospheric phenomena.

CJI: Are they very different missions?

Henning: Yes. Some involve very few weather hazards while others have many to deal with. On winter projects over the North Pacific, our operational cruise altitude of 41,000 – 45,000 feet places us well into the stratosphere where there is almost never any adverse weather.

CJI: Do any hurricanes stand out for you in particular?

Henning: In recent years, Hurricane Irma was very turbulent and challenging to fly safely. It was a Category 5 system that the NOAA AOC [Aircraft Operations Centre] flew from east of the Lesser Antilles in the Atlantic, then north of Cuba as it moved westward toward the US before passing through the Florida Keys and making landfall on the southwestern Florida Peninsula. The centre of Irma passed within a few miles west of our new hangar facility in Lakeland, Florida.

CJI: How many dropwindsondes do you drop on an average hurricane mission?

Henning: We typically drop between 30 and 35 from the NOAA Gulfstream IV during hurricane missions.

CJI: They obviously get battered by the wind, what is their failure rate?

Henning: Surprisingly, few of them fail. They are manufactured to withstand the shock of being deployed from a jet flying at Mach .77, which is the most challenging aspect to their design. Our failure rate through the course of a year is typically only around 5%.

CJI: Do people ever find dropwindsondes when they have landed?

Henning: No. We launch them over water. After they splash down in the ocean they are designed to be negatively buoyant and sink to the sea floor. The cardboard case will erode over the course of about a year and the metal electronic components corrode in the seawater so there is very little left of the instrument and it ends up buried in the sand.

CJI: What is the difference between the data you get from dropwindsondes and the tail radar?

Henning: Both the dropwindsondes and tail Doppler radar provide wind data. However, the sondes also transmit data on pressure, temperature and humidity to the G-IV as they fall.

CJI: You have obviously seen lots of hurricanes, can you now predict how they are going to behave from outside or is it all about the data?

Henning: We are flying these missions to collect the data. As meteorologists we can see changes and trends in the data that give us some insight as to how a storm will react. However, we only see a portion of the big picture. The forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami have all the data from various sources, such as satellites, ground based radars etc, so they are still in the best position to make decisions about issuing Hurricane Watches and Warnings.

CJI: Can you see the data while flying?

Henning: Oh yes. A big part of our job is quality control of the data before we send it on into the computer models via broadband satellite link. We do our best to ensure that the data is accurate before it leaves the plane.

Finger trouble: Flight director Richard ‘Rich’ Henning points out the path of Hurricane Dorian to a colleague aboard NOAA's G-IV.

CJI: Since 1997 data collected by the G-IV has enabled computer models to improve hurricane landfall and track forecasts by about 20%. This is impressive but can you keep improving on this?

Henning: Yes absolutely. We are always working with researchers at NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division along with the Environmental Modelling Center of the National Center for Environmental Prediction to optimise our flight plans. That enables us to drop sondes in just the right locations in and around a hurricane that will have the biggest impact on the accuracy of the computer models. This is an ongoing process.

CJI: Your ‘Gonzo’ is clearly very different inside to most business jets but do you still have a coffee pot and galley?

Henning: We have a small galley area in the rear of the cabin with a microwave oven to heat up our lunch. We can store hot coffee brought aboard in a canister but there is no coffee pot.

CJI: It must be very satisfying knowing you are helping to save lives on the ground, what is the best part of your job?

Henning: Most meteorologists look at the data we collect and probably wonder, in an abstract sense, what it must be like to be in the storm environment. To be the one that actually gets to fly the missions and be there in the middle of it all, is very special.

CJI: What is the worst part of your job?

Henning: Some projects require extended deployments away from home – such as the Atmospheric Rivers project flown this past February and March out of Portland, Oregon. Being away from my family is the least favourite aspect of the job. The best way to avoid being homesick while on the road is to have a busy operations tempo and fly lots of missions every week. That makes the time seem to go by much faster.

Lieutenant commander Matthew Nardi, pilot, NOAA Corps

CJI: How did you end up in your role?

Nardi: I joined the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps and went out onto the NOAA ship fleet as a deck watch officer on the hydrographic survey ship NOAA ship Rainier. Through many roles as a NOAA divemaster, hydrographer, small boat coxswain, and navigation officer, I eventually applied for and was accepted into flight training. I had previous experience as an electrician in the US Air Force on the A-10 Warthog and a Private Pilot Licence that augmented my skillset to apply towards an aviation career.

CJI: Did you need special training?

Nardi: Although some of our aviators come in with qualifications from previous military service, those of us from the NOAA ship side typically get our qualifications with a commercial flight school. After serving a tour on ships and getting accepted to aviation service we are sent to get our Commercial Pilot’s Licence, Multi-engine Rating and Instrument licences. After that, our pipeline starts with the DHC-6 Twin Otter, which our pilots typically operate on for two years before becoming aircraft commanders. After that there are other higher performance airframes like the B350ER King Air and AC695 Turbo Commander that aviators can qualify on before going to our heavy hurricane airframes, the Gulfstream G-IV and WP-3D Orion. There is initial commercial training that we conduct prior to qualification in each airframe, as well as in-house training programmes at each level to train our pilots with our special mission sets like hurricane operations.

CJI: What do people you meet say when they find out what you do for a living?

Nardi: The most common question is whether it is challenging in the hurricane environment. My response is that if you do it right in the G-IV, it is ordinarily not more turbulent than a commercial flight. We avoid the worst parts of the storm and do careful analysis to make sure the mission is executed safely.

CJI: What do other pilots say when they find out what you do?

Nardi: Especially on the G-IV, pilots often wonder how we fly into the storm on a business jet and whether it is strengthened or augmented for storm operations. We fly a standard Gulfstream GIV-SP as far as engines and airframe are concerned, so we are limited to the 2.5 positive G limit that most jets are certified to. The actual flight profiles largely take us above and around the worst parts of the storm. Due to high-altitude performance considerations, we have to take special precautions to guard against exceeding our engine performance limitations or departing the flight envelope. Risk management and good early decisions are the heart of the game – a chess match is perhaps a better analogy to high altitude jet hurricane flying than a boxing match.

CJI: Do other countries have similar teams? If so, have you met any pilots doing similar roles?

Nardi: Several atmospheric research jets are outfitted throughout the world, but each one has unique capabilities. NOAA’s G-IV has been tailor-made for research and reconnaissance around the hurricane environment.

CJI: Have you ever been scared flying on a mission?

Nardi: Every mission, I make sure to keep aware of all potential hazards and contingencies. Sometimes the most benign flights can be made hazardous with the wrong decisions, so we always make sure our team brings their decades of experience to bear on every flight planning session.

CJI: How often do you see other aircraft when you are on a hurricane mission?

Nardi: Due to the altitude we almost never visually see other aircraft, but we often talk to the NOAA WP-3D or Air Force WC-130 on the VHF radio when flying on the same storm.

CJI: Is there any competition between the Gonzo pilots and the Lockheed P-3 ones – are you all rated for both?

Nardi: The skillsets and qualifications for flying the two aircraft are quite different, so once pilots are rated and current on one, they usually stay there. If a pilot has a secondary platform, it is typically the light aircraft like the DHC-6 Twin Otter, AC-695 Turbo Commander, or B350ER King Air. In addition to flying these airframes, our pilots all have ground jobs to work in the various sections of the organisation alongside our civilian workforce (Maintenance, Operations, Training, Safety, Science and Technology, and Administration). Our workforce is fairly small with 120 employees and nine aircraft, so we keep a tight-knit cohesive team.

NOAA colleagues track the Hurricane Dorian’s key metrics.

CJI: Some business jet passengers can be demanding, how do you think flight directors compare with ultra-high-net worth individuals?

Nardi: Our flight directors have decades of experience flying into storms, so any input from them is always welcome by the pilots in the flight station. We go out of our way to foster this environment even in our everyday work, so that if it comes to an emergency our communications are open and ready. I think the complexity and risk of the hurricanes keeps everyone on the plane focussed on safety and mission execution.

CJI: What would you say to someone thinking of applying for a job like yours?

Nardi: I always advocate aspiring pilots to get a technical science degree along with their flight qualifications and to make sure that they are interested in all aspects of the NOAA Commissioned Corps. Flying these aircraft is only one part of a very diverse career for us, so you have to be prepared to contribute in whatever capacity is needed during your tour.

CJI: All good pilots understand weather, are you even better?

Nardi: We have a team of flight directors who are absolute experts with conditions in the hurricane environment. It is only because of their input that I am able to see anything beyond what all pilots can access on NOAA’s

CJI: It must be very satisfying knowing you are helping to save lives on the ground, what is the best part of your job?

Nardi: The best part of my job is being part of such a cohesive team that are focused on mission execution and safety. Having such a clear sense of purpose and mission lets us avoid a lot of organisational pitfalls that others often see.

CJI: What is the worst?

Nardi: Constant growth is an absolute must in this business, as it is in so many industries. I think that fuels a lot of satisfaction in the job as well as some frustrations, depending on the day. Through changing conditions, job changes, airframe upgrades, and personnel shifts, the organisation is always looking to find the best way to safeguard lives and property. ■

Stratospheric scenery: Cloud tops above Hurricane Dorian are pictured in 2019 over the wing of NOAA's G-IV.

Stratospheric scenery: Cloud tops above Hurricane Dorian are pictured in 2019 over the wing of NOAA's G-IV.

“Keep aware of all potential hazards and contingencies.”

CJI Connect

National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration

Washington, DC, US | +1 828 271-4800 |

Alasdair Whyte, Editor-in-chief, Corporate Jet Investor

Alasdair Whyte, Editor-in-chief, Corporate Jet Investor