As the 2017 hurricane season winds down, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Corps officers based in Lakeland, FL, are looking ahead to snow in the forecast, marine mammal surveys, coastal mapping surveys, and atmospheric surveys. For the 110 personnel made up of scientists, pilots, navigators, maintenance, and administrative support staff, the 2017 hurricane season brought exactly what NOAA predicted: “an active and above-normal season.”

NOAA’s Gulfstream IV-SP hurricane hunter jet at the new NOAA Aircraft Operations Center facility in Lakeland Florida (NOAA photo by David Hall)

A few days after Hurricane Nate made landfall on the Gulf Coast, Gleim Aviation had the opportunity to tour the Hurricane Hunters’ brand new facility and meet several flight crew members at their home base located at the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport. The Aircraft Operations Center moved from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa to Lakeland in June 2017.

With the smell of fresh office paint and burning jet fuel in the air, the NOAA facility was buzzing with activity as crew members worked on their planes. Our tour of the NOAA facility started upstairs in the Operations Center where we met with LT David Cowan and LCDR Paul Hemmick. These pilots studied using Gleim Aviation, so naturally, Gleim Aviation Instructor Paul Duty was eager to learn more about their career paths as well as the incredibly demanding flight missions that the NOAA crews prepare for.

Duty and Cowan fly on very different missions but found common ground; they discovered that they both started their flight training at the same school near Pittsburgh, PA, with the same flight instructor more than 15 years ago, in 2000 and 2001.

WP-3D Orion, N42RF “Miss Piggy”

While Hemmick explained NOAA day-to-day operations, a Lockheed WP-3D Orion had just started up its four Rolls-Royce engines. Aircraft N42RF, nicknamed “Kermit,” was taxiing out for a 3-hour calibration flight, so the tour ventured outside to watch the takeoff. As the 130,000 pound aircraft departed and turned to the Northeast, Hemmick explained the critical nature of equipment calibration for performing accurate data collection.

Another WP-3D Orion, affectionately nicknamed “Miss Piggy,” was 150 miles away at the U.S. Navy base in Jacksonville, FL, undergoing a retrofit that will take more than a year. “She’s getting new wings, new engines and a reinforced floor,” Cowan said. “Miss Piggy,” a variant 1970’s P-3 Orion, joined forces with a 1990s Gulfstream IV-SP to play a role in facing hurricanes head on. According to Cowan, the WP-3D flies into hurricanes using specialized radar equipment on its belly and tail to scan horizontal and vertical storm composition. Hemmick described the radar picture as being similar to taking an “MRI of the storm.” The G-IV generally flies at higher altitudes above the hurricanes.

Protecting Lives and Property

The Atlantic hurricane season officially runs from June 1 to November 30. However, the NOAA aircraft, crew, and scientists continue collecting and analyzing environmental data all year across the United States and beyond.

The NOAA fleet of specially equipped aircraft includes a Lockheed WP-3D Orion, Gulfstream IV-SP, Beechcraft King Air 350CER, Gulfstream Turbo Commander, a De Havilland Twin Otter, and a multitude of small Unmanned Aircraft Systems. The NOAA aircraft can be adapted for different types of studies. When it comes to hurricanes or studies involving research stations, the main adjustment made to each plane is providing support for the thousands of pounds of extra data collection equipment. Most passenger seats are removed from the aircraft and replaced with computers and diagnostic equipment.

Gonzo
Gulfstream N49RF, “Gonzo”

A Gulfstream IV-SP, known as “Gonzo” was inside the 58,000 square-foot Lakeland hangar undergoing routine maintenance. Hemmick and Cowan guided Duty through the aircraft and explained the equipment and operations normally conducted in this high-altitude research platform. They explained how the Gulfstream usually flies above hurricanes at an altitude between 41,000 and 45,000 feet to study upper atmospheric weather systems. Biodegradable tubes called “dropsondes” are released from the back of the aircraft to measure pressure, temperature, humidity, and wind shifts.

Dropsonde Release
Lt. David Cowan demonstrates how a dropsonde is released.

The group toured the De Havilland Twin Otter, N46RF, just prior to its crew departing on a training flight. This and similar Twin Otter aircraft are collecting data for a NOAA snow survey for the North Central River Forecast Center and Missouri Basin Forecast Center to support flood predictions. Expected completion date is the end of January. Snow Water Equivalent and soil moisture measurements are used by National Weather Service Weather Forecast Offices and River Forecast Centers when issuing river and flood forecasts, water supply forecasts, and spring flood outlooks.

On a heavier note, Hemmick explained a project called GRAV-D (Gravity for the Redefinition of the American Vertical Datum). NOAA is 10 years into a 15-year project to measure and monitor the Earth’s gravity field to support the geoid. According to NOAA, “The geoid is a model of global mean sea level that is used to measure precise surface elevations.” The geoid will be applied to satellite position measurements, such as GPS, to obtain accurate height measurements. The project, which concludes in 2022, will improve floodplain mapping, coastal resource management, construction, agriculture, and emergency evacuation planning, according to NOAA.

The Left Seat

NOAA Lockheed WP-3D Orion N42RF flight deck as seen during a flight into Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 24, 2017.
Photo: LT Kevin Doremus/NOAA

After returning from an outreach event at a local school, Turbo Commander Pilot and Public Affairs Officer, LT Billy Bonner joined the tour and explained the path NOAA officers take to fly and conduct research. The qualifications can vary but the first requirement for the job is a 4-year degree in math or science. Bonner earned a B.S. in geography with a minor in mathematics at Jacksonville State in Alabama. He went on to join NOAA and earn his private pilot, commercial pilot, multi-engine and instrument ratings. Other pilots have degrees in fields ranging from biology to meteorology.

According to Cowan, all applicants who are accepted into the program begin their training at the NOAA Corps Officer Training Center at the United States Coast Guard Officer Candidate School and then split off to train to become pilots under the NOAA branch. The NOAA pilots can start their initial primary flight training with NOAA or undergo transition training in Vero Beach, FL. Pilots use Gleim Aviation training courses and materials to help them prepare for their private, instrument, and commercial pilot certification.

AOC Public Affairs Officer and Turbo Commander Pilot LT Billy Bonner
(Photo Suzette Cook/Gleim Aviation)

STEM Education

The tour of the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center and information provided by the committed scientists, pilots, and crew who gather crucial data about the atmosphere and environment confirm that aviation education will continue to play an important role in the STEM education revolution. Scientists who fly open up a world of data that can be used to save lives and the environment.

Gleim Aviation supports STEM aviation education. Gleim will continue reaching out to educators by attending the 2017 AOPA High School Aviation STEM Symposium November 6-7 in Fort Worth, TX.

About Gleim Aviation

Since 1980, Gleim Aviation’s team of pilots, instructors, writers, designers, and programmers has helped aviators pass millions of FAA knowledge and practical tests using the unique Gleim Knowledge Transfer System. Gleim is an environmentally friendly company headquartered in Gainesville, FL.

Photo courtesy NOAA