Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hurricane Hunter Miss Piggy over the Bering Sea!

So all the stars lined up just right and I was able to jump aboard the hurricane hunter Miss Piggy...a WP-3 4 engine turboprop. A quick word about why the hurricane hunter is flying in Alaska...during the off-season, they will fly numerous research flights for NESDIS (National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information). This mission is to fly under satellites and verify their measurements by using the same equipment on the hurricane hunter. Interesting stuff but most people just want to see pictures and videos and hear if we got sick so I'll get to that. If you are interested, here are a couple of links that tell more about NESDIS, Miss Piggy, and a similar mission a couple years ago out of St. Johns, Newfoundland.

Sam and I met the crew at 2pm during the pre-flight briefing. They talked about where we were going and all potential problems, from icing to turbulence to the volcano erupting and places to divert in case of anything. This was the first time my heart started racing a little. These guys don't sugar coat emergencies like the airlines do. It wasn't..."in the unlikely event of an emergency, blah blah". These guys just saw, "if we have to ditch...." It was an eye opener how much the word "ditch" was thrown around.

Next we moved to our safety briefing with the copilot down in the hangar and on the plane. He showed us our gumby suits that we would have to put on in less than 2 minutes and our life vest that came equipped with everything including an EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon). This was actually my second time putting on a gumby suit...that did not make it any easier or more comfortable. Those things are hard to get in, awkward, and HOT. The copilot timed us while we struggled to fit these things over our heads and try to put on our life vests with huge lobster claw hands. Very awkward.

We moved onto the plane where we finished our safety briefing. Again, nothing was sugar coated. More scary scenarios were thrown around like "...if you find yourself blinded by airplane fuel, grab this bar and when it changes texture you'll know you're at the exit". Wait, WHUH??!! "...if you hear this bell RRRIIIINNNGGGGG, no matter where you are grab the closest chair and buckle up. It's musical chairs when you hear that bell, get your ass in a chair!" HUH???? "...this one time we hit turbulence so bad that it knocked off an inflatable life raft and threw it against this solid metal bar and bent the bar. When we landed, the flight engineer went straight to American Airlines and flew home. The rest of us went to the bar". oh MAN!

Stickers of all of the hurricanes this plane has flown through. 2 that I noted were Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Andrew.

One more pre-flight briefing on the plane before we take off.

So to say the least, I was nervous before we took off. I knew the plan was to be in the air around 8 hours and fly at 5000 feet during most of the flight but I had no idea what to expect. Would it be constant turbulence? Severe? Would I be sick the whole time? No idea what to expect but I know I wanted to find out. I would never forgive myself if I didn't take advantage of this opportunity.
Taxi and takeoff was a new experience. The plane is open so you can walk right up into the cockpit. As we start up our engines, there is a call for free bodies to come up to the cockpit for some additional weight. So 4 of us walk up there and squeeze around the front of the plane so the front wheel would have more traction while maneuvering around the other parked planes to get to the runway. It was awesome to not only be on a plane where people around during taxiing, but we actually were able to walk up into the cockpit and listen to the pilot/copilot while they literally squeezed through a couple of planes.

Take off was uneventful. Very cool that we had headsets so we could listen to the banter between the plane and the tower. We also had 2 screens in front of us that we could switch to cameras that are pointed forward, down, and to the side. VERY COOL!!!

Immediately as we got in the air, there was some light turbulence. Just enough to make me a little nervous and those thoughts started creeping back in...mainly "holy crap...8 hours of this??!?!?!" Within minutes, it calmed down and it was smooth. WOO...thank goodness. We cross the Alaska Range at about 16000 feet and it was pretty smooth, again wasn't expecting that because there was a decent front approaching (the low and associated front that we were meeting in the Bering Sea) so I figured we'd hit some turbulence in that area but it wasn't bad at all. Sam and I started walking around freely and talking to everyone and taking tons and tons of pictures. Unfortunately it was a cloudy day so there wasn't much of a view of Alaska. We also knew that we would only have 3 or 4 hours of light left so we tried to take as many pictures as possible.

This is the flight meteorologist. He's been flying for over 20 years.

And then some excitement...before we got to St. Pual, we started getting some icing. The first picture is the wing outside my window and the second picture is the ice building up on the windshield? I don't know what else to call it so windshield will have to do.

Finally a break in the weather so we could see some beautiful scenery over the central Bering Sea before the sun went down.

As we flew over St. Paul Island, we dropped down to 5000 ft. This was the part of the flight that I knew was going to bring us our turbulence. We were near the frontal boundary and getting closer to the center of the huge low...dropping down to 5000 ft had to mean turbulence, right?? Not really. It was remarkably smooth. What was really cool was we were able to see St. Paul Island through the clouds and then we could see the sea ice and the ocean. That was a real unexpected treat.
It's hard to tell but those are waves down there.

At one point as I was trying to find an open window, I realized everyone on the plane was just as excited about seeing St. Paul, the sea ice, and a some rough seas just 5000 ft below us. It was pretty exciting...also it was the last bit of light before the sun set.

During this time I think is when we started to get into some more serious icing. Flight engineers were going window to window with their flashlights and peering out to try and see how much ice was accumulating on the wing. When he came by our window I asked if this was still light icing and he calmly said "no, this is more like moderate". Okay.

This was the time when the scientist on board were collecting their data. They asked for two dropsondes to be released. They are dropped from a tube that goes down the bottom of the plane. Just like the balloons that we send up from our office, they send back data twice every second to the plane.

A vertical profile of the atmosphere is constructed with this data.

Here's a 7 second video of the drop. Watch the tube and how it sucks it out.

About an hour later, we hear an announcement that there will be another release. About 5 minutes before the release, I hear the pilot say on the headset that he is de-pressurizing the plane. I looked at Sam and said something brilliant like "huh?"

One of the screens we could flip through showed the cabin pressure so we found that and sure enough it was dropping rapidly from 980mb to the 800s. Surely this can't be right. So we head back to see the sonde being released and the captain comes over the loudspeaker and says "plane is de-pressurized, you can open the hatch". Sure enough, the pressure in the cabin was equal to the pressure outside at 5000 ft so it was around 820mb I think. Our ears were POPPING!!! Why they did this was because this drop was going to include a buoy that is too big for the other pressurized tube. So it is simply dropped out and splashed down, then unwinds copper wiring that measures the temperature of the ocean down 1200 ft!! Pretty amazing stuff. Sam was sitting closer to the guy so he asked if Sam wanted to help out. I grabbed my camera so I could take the video of Sam "throwing" the sonde down.

What was funny was the guy had told Sam half a dozen times to THROW it. So Sam went to throw it and it got sucked right out of his hand and out the bottom of the plane. Still, Sam had a nice follow-through.

After that...things got pretty quiet. About an hour or two later, we went back up to 23000 feet. Not much else was happening the last 3 hours of the flight so it was just a matter of hanging out and really enjoying the moment. I spent about 30 minutes up in the cockpit talking with everyone up there. I also took a couple pictures of course.

And meanwhile, I lost my buddy. Actually he only slept a half hour or so, not bad considering he worked the previous night shift and only slept 3 hours before the flight.

I think I may have taken a 10 minute nap too somewhere in there but we were determined not to waste one minute onboard. So we slapped each other and threw some coffee on our faces and got back to talking to the crew for the last hour or so of the flight. So certainly we would finally see some good turbulence during the descent into Anchorage...nope. It was the smoothest flight. Sorry to disappoint but neither one of us got sick or even felt sick during the flight. It was very smooth.

While parking the plane, we were able to go up front again to help give the plane some more traction. After we thanked everyone again for allowing us to join them, we sat in on their debriefing when the captain said something like, "This was a varsity night guys. Good job". Evidently, there were quite a few more problems than we knew about...nothing that was dangerous or anything but problems nonetheless. The icing was in fact a problem that they were watching for the majority of the flight and kept everyone on their toes for the 8.3 hours that we were in the air.

Once we said our goodbyes and thank yous one more time, we watched them pull the plane in the hangar. What was funny was there was too much ice so they had to hook up a truck to assist in the pull. Entertaining to watch at least.

Once they were inside, we noticed ice was still on parts of the plane...mainly the instruments that aren't de-iced. As we were standing there, a piece fell off that was about a half inch thick. It was amazing how solid that ice was...really neat stuff that I'd never seen before.

Sam put together our flight track on google maps for me. This shows how far out in the Bering Sea we were. I think I heard we flew about 2100 miles round trip.
AMAZING trip!!! Hope you enjoyed the pictures, videos, and read at least some of the words.


Christin said...

I read every word! I'm so glad that that you got to experience something so amazing. You certainly will never forget this!

Honey said...

Oh Andy!!! Two things; one, I think I am glad you told me about it AFTER THE FACT!! And secondly,every word you wrote made me feel like I was there with you. As I was reading about the anticipation pre-flight instructions I felt my heart rate increase. How's that for feeling your pain?? I'm thrilled that you didn't let this opportunity pass you by. What memories!

Jason said...

Yup, I'm STILL jealous. I'd take a flight in the WP-3 than the NASA DC-8 any day!

Lisa said...

Awesome post Mr. Brown! Glad you got to experience that. It was very reminicient of my experience, and guess what, some of those guys were on my flight! And I heard that turbulence-bar-bending story too! Weird! Glad you're home safe.