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How the U.S. Weather Corps Hunts Hurricanes

Brian K. Sullivan

(Bloomberg) -- For Lieutenant Commander John Rossi, flying into the winds of a hurricane is like “wrestling an 800-pound gorilla.”

Rossi is a pilot with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Commissioned Officer Corps, a little known quasi-military branch of the agency that helps gather information on weather events like Hurricane Dorian. He has been piloting one of the agency’s two four-engine Lockheed WP-3D Orion aircraft -- nicknamed Kermit and Miss Piggy -- into all kinds of storms since 2017, including Hurricanes Harvey, Maria and last year’s Michael, the third most intense storm to hit the contiguous U.S.

“When you are sitting in the left seat, piloting the plane, hands on the controls, one of my co-workers use the analogy it is like wrestling an 800-pound gorilla,” Rossi said in a phone interview Friday, before taking off on yet another mission into the heart of Dorian. “Your primary goal is just to keep the wings level, fly along the intended track line.”

Along with the U.S. Air Force Reserve, which also flies into storms, the information Rossi and his fellow pilots bring back to NOAA -- the National Weather Service’s parent organization -- helps forecasters get a handle on sometimes confounding weather. Dorian has been especially unpredictable: at various times in its life cycle, forecasters believed Dorian would strike Puerto Rico (it missed) and would slam into Florida’s east coast (it may yet turn away).

NOAA Corps, under the command of Rear Admiral Michael Silah, is one of two uniformed services that operate outside the U.S. military. The only other is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and is headed by the Surgeon General.

The unit was formed in 1970, but can trace its roots through a variety of uniformed services and agencies that date back to 1807. About 320 officers serve in the Corps, holding ranks and wearing uniforms that echo the Navy and the Coast Guard. NOAA officers train at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, and must serve at sea before they can apply to join the flying service.

“Not many people know the NOAA Corps exists,” said Rossi, who first heard about while enrolled in St. Louis University’s aviation program. “I saw a flier for the NOAA Corps on a career board that I had to pass every day going to class.”

The idea appealed to the self-described “weather geek.”

“I was looking for something in between the military and commercial airline industry,” said Rossi, who is based in Lakeland, Florida. “I wanted to do something unique that had something to do with the weather.”

Not Just Hurricanes

The pilots are not just hunting for hurricanes -- every winter, NOAA staff fly low across the U.S. to measure snow depth and water content. That information helps the National Weather Service predict where floods may occur once the spring sun begins to melt the snow.

NOAA aircraft has also been used to sample air from North Dakota to Texas to determine if shale oil and natural gas operations were adding to ground-level ozone, which can cause health problems. Plus, NOAA ships will sail engineers to repair lonesome buoys in far flung locations that detect the first signs of tsunamis and market roiling El Ninos or La Ninas.

The Corps also gathers information on clear air turbulence, which is a bane to commercial airlines. Other missions skirt the edge of severe thunderstorms out of Kansas to gather more data on what triggers tornadoes.

In other words, “there is plenty of work” even outside of hurricane season, Rossi said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian K. Sullivan in Boston at bsullivan10@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tina Davis at tinadavis@bloomberg.net, Linus Chua

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