GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Aerial reconnaissance, or flying into tropical storms and hurricanes, first began in 1935.
Prior to that, the National Weather Service could only rely on information from ships at sea or ground-based offices. Today, Hurricane Hunter aircraft fly into the storms, gathering important weather data to aid in forecasting the track and intensity of the powerful storms.
The United States Air Force W-C 130 Hurricane Hunter is flown by some of the bravest men and women into the strongest and deadliest part of a storm to gather vital weather information.
Brian Schrueder is a meteorologist on board the Hurricane Hunter.
"The collection of weather data is very, very important," Schrueder said. "To get weather data to the public so they can be aware of where these storms will be headed."
While walking around the massive plane, one of the first things you'll notice under the wind is a device called a "SMURF."
"It's kind of a dyslexic acronym for a Step Frequency Microwave Radiometer," Schrueder explained. "It reads the surface conditions out there, giving us the rain rate going on in the storm, how much rain the storm is producing, and a good look at the sea surface winds."
Before the SMURF, surface winds were estimated by the amount of sea foam and white caps observed by the meteorologist on board. Basically, it was a rough guess at the wind speeds.
"It's accurate right down to the exact knot of the wind we are looking for and it is constantly taking readings of the wind speed," Schrueder said.
Another important piece of equipment is the dropsonde. Roughly the size of a Pringles can, the dropsonde is dropped vertically into the storm with a parachute attached.
"They send back all kinds of weather data, such as temperature, dew point, which converts to humidity, the surface, and the atmospheric pressure as it is falling, then also wind speed and direction," Schrueder said.
He says the technology has improved tremendously over the last several years.
"The biggest change has been the fidelity of the data," he said. "We are able to send the data now every second."
Dr. David Novak of the National Weather Service's Weather Prediction Center says this information is critical for meteorologists and forecasters.
"Sometimes this information validates what we think, other times I have to say it is surprising and that is a critical piece of information," Novak said.
A good example of this is from Hurricane Charley, which battered the Florida coast in 2004. The storm intensified rapidly, surprising many meteorologists in the state.
"It is used in our weather prediction model, it does help getting a track of the storm nailed down and what the storm will do in the future," said Novak.
This combination of satellite and radar information, Hurricane Hunter data, along with advancements in computer models has improved the forecast tracks dramatically over the years.
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