NOAA Hurricane Hunters collect data to track Matthew’s path

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — They are called the Hurricane Hunters and operate out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

The flight crew and scientists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, play an important role in predicting the path and intensity of hurricanes.

They have also charted air quality across the globe, made measurements of El Nino and tracked ice packs and more, but the scientists say many in Tampa, and even at MacDill Air Force Base, don’t even know they exist.

It’s a relatively small but dedicated group working for NOAA at MacDill and they are committed to improving the science of predicting hurricanes.

“There’s not a lot of jobs out there where you can go home after a day of working and really feel like you’ve made a difference in people’s lives,” said Paul Flaherty, who is the chief of the science section for NOAA.

Flaherty has flown through, above, and around many storms, and each time he keeps a keen focus on what he’s doing by thinking about the people on the ground in the path of a storm.

“My parents may not be on the east coast or my children might not be but other people’s parents and children are, so that’s just as important to us,” said Flaherty.

The NOAA team flies in a Gulf Stream jet loaded inside and out with scientific equipment designed to take measurements of the storm.

The Gulfstream, which is nicknamed Gonzo, cruises at an altitude of 40,000 to 45,000 feet above, around and in front of the storm.

At predetermined points along the way, they release devices called dropsondes into the storm. “When they are released, they will descend to the surface of the ocean and collect temperature, humidity, wind speed, direction and pressure, four times a second, all the way down,” said NOAA Flight Director Mike Holmes.

The information gathered is then entered into computer models that predict the storm path and intensity.

“It’s very complex because when you think about making sure the right people leave, the flip side of that is making sure the right people don’t leave because as you know, when you start evacuating people who later find out they didn’t need to, that has a negative impact on the future, and that we have to work on,” said Flaherty.

The flight takes up to nine hours. The data they gather during the flight can impact millions of lives.

“We are really glad we are able to do this and we’re very proud of the work we do we just hope we get the right data to the people who can make the right decisions and get the right people out of the way,” said Flaherty.