NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center: Over Fifty Years of Airborne Weather Research
NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center maintains and operates a fleet of 12 scientific research, reconnaissance, and surveillance aircraft that directly support the varied programs of NOAA. These highly specialized aircraft operate throughout the United States and around the world, enabling scientists to precisely observe, measure, and chart the dynamics of our coasts, oceans, and atmosphere.
Imagine flying directly into the winds of a fierce hurricane, or soaring high above the Earth, with a bird's eye view of a natural disaster on the ground below, all to collect information vital to the safety of the American public. For over 50 years, NOAA has done just that, taking to the skies in pursuit of scientific knowledge.
Today, the Aircraft Operations Center (AOC) operates, modifies, and maintains NOAA's fleet of research aircraft. These aircraft are called upon to support everything from hurricane research to aerial photography surveys to disaster search and recovery efforts.
This article traces the history of NOAA's aircraft, starting with 1956, when early hurricane flights for the U.S. Weather Bureau led to breakthroughs in understanding these dangerous storms.
The aviation program within the U.S. Department of Commerce recently celebrated its 50th anniversary by commemorating the start of the U.S. Weather Bureau's National Hurricane Research Project (NHRP) in 1956.
To begin its study of hurricanes, NHRP's Flight Group used two WB-50s and a WB-47 aircraft, all provided and operated by the U.S. Air Force Air Weather Service. The Weather Bureau supplied the instrumentation to outfit these aircraft, and NHRP personnel participated in missions during the 1956, 1957, and 1958 hurricane seasons.
The meteorological data gathered during these first few years helped the Air Weather Service and scientists worldwide better understand the atmosphere and proved the value of using aircraft to study hurricanes. To increase the Weather Bureau's ability to learn about hurricanes, three additional aircraft were acquired and began flying during the 1960 storm season.
The Weather Bureau acquired two DC-6 aircraft and first flew them during the 1960 hurricane season. Soon these aircraft were also used for other atmospheric research programs during the off-season. Click image for larger view.
On January 1, 1961, the NHRP Flight Group became the Research Flight Facility (RFF), directly under the Weather Bureau's Office of Meteorological Research. Soon RFF- instrumented aircraft began supporting other meteorological research programs throughout the year. These programs included the National Severe Storm Project and the Weather Bureau's Atmospheric Resources Laboratory and Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry Laboratory.
Between 1963 and 1965, RFF would operate four aircraft for a range of missions, including deployment to Bombay, India, to support the International Indian Ocean Experiment and National Severe Storms Laboratory thunderstorm project.
A Commerce Department reorganization in 1965 created the Environmental Science Services Administration, assigning the RFF to the Environmental Research Laboratories.
During the mid-1960s and early 1970s, the RFF's four aircraft began an intensive project called Stormfury. Stormfury was a joint effort of the Commerce and Defense Departments to reduce the intensity of hurricanes through dynamic cloud-seeding. The idea behind Stormfury was that, by seeding the outer rainbands of the storm with silver iodide, it was possible to increase the diameter of the eye of the storm and reduce the strength of storm winds.
In 1970, a Lockheed WC-130B was obtained by the RFF from the U.S. Air Force to further enhance Stormfury, a cloud seeding research project. Today, C-130 hurricane hunters are flown by the Air Force Reserves. Click image for larger view.
Despite the best of intentions, the Stormfury project was ultimately unsuccessful. According to Dr. Jim McFadden, who currently serves as Chief of AOC's Programs Office and joined the RFF in 1968 as its Coordinator of Scientific Programs, Stormfury was abandoned because, "the geographical restrictions imposed on the project as to where hurricanes could be seeded resulted in only a few storms being in the right location for seeding." Dr. McFadden also noted that the natural variability within hurricanes often produces the same results Stormfury was hypothesized to create, suggesting that "seeding" the storm made little difference.
In 1973, the RFF was reorganized and the number of its aircraft reduced. Also at this time, it became apparent that several of the aircraft at RFF were becoming unsuitable for the harsh environment in which they were working. Aircraft with better performance characteristics and more sophisticated instrumentation were needed to achieve the goals of both hurricane research and the organization's many other projects. To beef up the fleet, RFF ordered two WP-3D Orion (P-3) turbine-powered aircraft.
Thirty years ago, NOAA flew the first WP-3D Orion "hurricane hunter" into Hurricane Bonny, in the eastern Pacific. That flight marked the beginning of a remarkable career by an aircraft that is, even today, considered a workhorse of NOAA.
NOAA acquired two P-3s during the 1970s, and still flies them today. They are considered the workhorses of the NOAA aircraft fleet. Click image for larger view.
"The early season Pacific hurricane was less intense than most Atlantic hurricanes, so Hurricane Bonny was a relatively safe testing ground for the new P-3," said Jim DuGranrut, currently AOC's Deputy Director, who was an electronics engineer on the 1976 flight. The eastern Pacific was selected for the first hurricane flight because of the general lack of storms in the Atlantic in the early summer months and because most central Atlantic storms remained far from land. Bonny was a weak storm close to shore, which made the operation from Acapulco, Mexico, less dangerous and much easier.
Though sparsely equipped by today's standards, the P-3 carried temperature probes and pressure sensors on its fuselage and radar in its nose radome that gave meteorologists on board an up-close view of storm dynamics.
In September of 1989, Kermit penetrated the eye of Hurricane Hugo at 1,500 feet, encountering severe turbulence and winds of over 200 miles an hour. One of its four engines quit in the eyewall. Hurricane Hugo was a shake-up call for Kermit. Fortunately, the 1989 experience didn’t scare off Alan Goldstein (standing), who is now chief of AOC’s Science and Engineering Division. Click image for larger view and full caption.
"We had been working around the clock to get the P-3 equipped with its meteorological instrumentation and ready to fly by the beginning of hurricane season. Then during the flight we were so busy making sure the equipment worked, we didn't have time to get nervous," DuGranrut said. "Nevertheless, we were all pretty relieved by the end of the first flight that the P-3 handled so well."
In 1976, NOAA's first P-3 was joined by its sister ship. Both of these turboprop aircraft were outfitted with two weather research radars specially designed to provide scientists with data that was, and still is, being used to unlock the secrets of hurricane dynamics.
One of these radars, located in a radome in the tail of the aircraft, was upgraded with Doppler capability. The first of its kind on a research aircraft, this radar gave scientists their first look at the three-dimensional wind flow in hurricanes and other convective systems.
In the 1980s, the two P-3s were dubbed "Kermit" and "Miss Piggy," after the beloved Muppet characters. These aircraft have continued to serve NOAA well, flying into countless hurricanes to gather valuable data used to increase our understanding of and ability to forecast these powerful storms.
In 1983, the Office of Aircraft Operations was created to consolidate all of NOAA's aviation assets. In the early 1990s, this office was designated the Aircraft Operations Center (AOC). The AOC moved from Miami, Florida, to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa in January, 1993.
Today, the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center operates and maintains a Gulfstream-IV SP high-altitude research aircraft acquired in 1996, two WP-3D Orions, two Rockwell (now Gulfstream) Aero Commanders, a Gulfstream Jet Prop Commander, a Cessna Citation II, four DeHavilland Twin Otters, and one Aerofab Lake Amphibian aircraft. A third P-3, which was transferred to NOAA from the Navy in 2006 and is being refurbished, will conduct NOAA's air chemistry and remote sensing projects. This will support NOAA's hurricane research by freeing up the other two P-3s to fly only hurricane missions during hurricane season.
AOC civilians and NOAA Corps officers gather in the NOAA hangar for a group picture. Click image for larger view.
AOC regularly supports projects across all divisions of NOAA. From the organization's beginnings with hurricane research, projects today include air quality missions, aerial photography for shoreline and airport obstruction surveys, remote sensing, marine mammal and fish surveys, and snow surveys to help forecasters predict potential flooding or drought from anticipated snow melt. AOC may also be called upon to support national disaster search and recovery efforts and damage assessments. Aircraft are, and will remain, a vital element of NOAA.
Contributed by Lori Bast, with thanks to Dr. James McFadden, Greg Bast, and Jim DuGranrut, NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations