Hurricane Sandy has grounded flights up and down the East Coast and is likely to spend the early part of this week trapping travelers in airport, but for a specific group of aviators, now is the time to take off. So-called "Hurricane Hunters" help experts understand the storms by flying through and above them. Many of these toughened fliers serve in the 403rd Air Force Wing out of Biloxi, Mississipi.
Lieutenant Colonel Shannon Hailes of the 403rd spoke to HuffPost Travel last year before setting off into Hurricane Irene. I wasn't Lt. Col. Hailes' first rodeo. A career Air Force pilot, Hailes had been hurricane hunting since 2003, when he moved to the south from the Middle East.
Lt. Col. Hailes spoke to Huffington Post Travel from the Keesler Air Force Base.
HuffPost Travel: As everyone else is fleeing this storm, you're basically going to fly straight into it?
Shannon Hailes: Yep. I’ve been flying through hurricanes since 2003 and I’ve probably been through roughly 50 storms. We fly through the middle of the hurricane and out about 105 miles then back through the middle to make a big X.
HPT: What is it like up there? How bad is the turbulence when you fly through a storm that big?
SH: We have excellent radar, so we can pick our way through the better parts of the storm, but no matter what we do, we know we’re going to have to punch through the wall of the hurricane and into the eye.
It can be extremely turbulent when there are strong winds, but things actually get worse when the winds are getting stronger and weaker and significantly worse if the storm starts to shift in altitude. But we do know where the roughest spots will likely be: Generally the most turbulence is going to occur during the eye wall penetration and whenever we fly through the northeast quadrant of the storm.
We sometimes joke that flying through a hurricane is just like being in a big washing machine or going through the car wash, a bumpy car wash, for a long time.
HPT: What do you see when you look out the cockpit window?
SH: Rain mostly, but if you get out of the clouds and the eye of the storm is well-formed, it looks lust like a stadium, with sloping sides that are just walls of clouds and the way it sort of bowls underneath you and goes all the way around… I think everyone who goes up into these storms gets a little more than they bargained for.
I’m used to it, but even for me it can be a little surprising. My worst hurricane was Rita. It was turbulent the whole time through, and I flew her a few times. When my crew was done, we were done. We were exhausted.
HPT: Do you have a date set up with Hurricane Irene?
SH: I’m flying into the storm on Friday, after the last planes fly into her from the base in St. Croix and head back this way. I’m looking at the National Hurricane Center models now and she looks like a CAT3 or CAT4, but she could be a CAT2 by the time she hits North Carolina. I’m hoping people are evacuated by then.
HPT: Tell me a little bit about your plane. This isn’t anything like a commercial jet right?
SH: The C130J is a prop aircraft and they don’t give out easily. It’s important that we have a prop airplane because there can be hail and you don’t want ice getting injected into a jet engine.
HPT: Why do we still need Hurricane Hunters in the age of satellite imagery?
SH: We do this because satellites can pinpoint the eye. We can increase the accuracy of a forecast by about 45 percent… Every square mile the government has to evacuate costs about $1 million — actually that was in 2003 so with inflation that would be more now. Having accurate forecasts matters.
HPT: Is there a bit of a community feel among the Hurricane Hunters because you do this crazy thing?
SH: There is a bit of a Hurricane Hunter bond. We don’t fly combat and we don’t get shot at, but we do something unique. I run into some Hurricane Hunters now and then and there is something there because you’ve done something that nobody else has done.