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The First Hurricane Hunter

| 9:00 am July 27, 2009 | Comments (0)

On July 13th, our guest on WeatherBrains was Lt. Col. Roy Deatherage of the Hurricane Hunters. He talked about the first aircraft flight into a hurricane…and it actually happened during this week in weather history…in 1943…

During WWII, tracking hurricanes was a difficult business. There were fewer ships at sea because of the threat of German U-boats. Those were at sea maintained radio silence.

Britain suffered mightily from the lack of weather reports from over the Atlantic. The Brits were forced to use precious aircraft to fly weather observation missions.

The U.S. was concerned about hurricanes affecting the West Indies, for it was thought that the Germans might turn that area into a theatre of war through Central and South America.

In Bryan, Texas, Col. James P. Duckworh was in charge of the Instrument Flying Instruction School. Before the 1930s, there wasn’t any such thing as instrument flying. Everything was visual.

Duckworth had been a pilot for Eastern Air Transport, the precursor to Eastern Airlines. He volunteered to active duty with the Army Air Corps Reserve. He knew flying in poor conditions was going to be necessary in order to win the war, and he saw his training as critical for young airmen.

On the morning of July 27, 1943, Col. Duckworth made his way to the base to have breakfast. As he ate, he learned that there was a hurricane making landfall near Galveston. Hard to believe, since it was a beautiful morning at Bryan, about 100 miles north of the coast. The storm was expected to pass near Houston during the afternoon.

Duckworth saw it as the perfect opportunity to do what no one had done intentionally up to that time—fly into a hurricane. Joe suggested to one of his breakfast companions, Lt. Ralph O’Hair that they take a single engine AT-6 trainer and fly into the storm for fun.

There were four new B-25‘s at the base, but it would be hard to justify using one of them for this unsanctioned mission.

As 100 mph winds were raking the coast. Duckworth and O’Hair took off for Galveston. Enroute, they called the tower at Houston and said the were flying to the coast. The incredulous operator asked them if they knew there was a hurricane. When they said yes, the controller asked for updates so he would be able to direct crews to the wreckage when they crashed.

As they flew toward the hurricane, they were in the weaker western semicircle of the storm. As they neared the eyewall, they experienced violent up and down turbulence that made them feel like a “bone in a dog’s mouth.”

Suddenly, they broke into the clear air of the eye. They flew around for a few minutes and headed back to the base where they were met by the staff meteorological officer. The weatherman wanted to know why they had not included him in their historic flight. They responded by telling him to hop in, they would take him to the center. The meteorologist kept a very detailed dairy of observations.

Duckworth did not immediately realize the significance of his feat. Later that year, one of his superiors summoned him to tell the pilot that he had been recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross. The unassuming Duckworth did receive the Air Medal for flying into a hurricane for the first time, twice in the same day.

Realizing the benefit of more specific information on hurricanes, regular reconnaissance flights were started the next year. Weather Bureau meteorologists used the information about 1944’s Great Atlantic Hurricane to issue better warnings.

Thanks again to last week’s guest Roy Deatherage for his appearance…and giving us a lead in for this week’s edition of this week in weather history…

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