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'Hurricane Hunters' Storm In To NE Florida

Aircraft from the United States Air Force Reserve’s “Hurricane Hunters” unit were at the Northeast Florida Regional Airport in St. Augustine Thursday. The unit collects data in real time that is used by emergency managers and meteorologists to track storms and warn the public.  

The “Hurricane Hunters,” who are based at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, fly a 700-ton cargo plane directly into the eye of a hurricane in the name of science.

Lieutenant Colonel Keith Gibson is a pilot and the unit’s Director of Operations. He says sometimes it’s like getting sprayed with firehose as wide as a school bus.

“[It’s] like a thrill ride, like Tower of Terror or something where the bottom gets dropped out,” he said. “You shoot up with those updrafts and downdrafts. We have hail we have to deal with, lightning … [and] we have airborne tornadoes called mesocyclones.”

However, not everybody needs to know all that. There are obvious hazards to this job and while Gibson says that he never downplays the risks, he does what he can to not worry his mother.

“You know, she loves that I do it, but she really really worries,” he said. “She’ll say, ‘don’t fly through that bad stuff.’ I don’t want to tell her — that’s our job! We have to fly through it ... I don’t want to make her more nervous.”

The visit was also attended by specialists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association as part of an East Coast tour promoting Hurricane Preparedness.

The Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1.

You can follow Peter Haden @HadenMedia.

Peter Haden is an award-winning investigative reporter and photographer currently working with The Center for Investigative Reporting. His stories are featured in media outlets around the world including NPR, CNN en Español, ECTV Ukraine, USA Today, Qatar Gulf Times, and the Malaysia Star.