Video: Flying into the eye of hurricane Irma

One of the most valuable tools used by meteorologists to track the direction and power of a hurricane is a giant, WC130J Super Hercules aircraft, flown by the US Air Force on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The aircraft flies directly into the teeth of powerful storms, gathering vital data on wind speed and rotation. Coupled with satellite and ground measurements, that data allows meteorologists to develop models that predict the likely path of hurricanes several days in advance.

But flying into a giant storm like Irma is no picnic, as this Reuters report demonstrates:

Piloting the four-engine, WC-130J aircraft was Air Force Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Jim Hitterman, who over the past 22 years has flown into 40 to 50 hurricanes.

Every storm is different but he likens the experience to driving through a car wash - with one big difference.

“As you’re driving through that car wash, a bunch of gorillas start jumping on top of your car,” Hitterman said, adding that sometimes shaking gets so bad, he cannot see his instruments.

On Friday and Saturday, Reuters accompanied the Air Force Reserves’ “Hurricane Hunters,” whose hard-won data taken directly from the center of storms like Hurricane Irma are critical to U.S. forecasts that save lives.

Experts say U.S. satellite data simply cannot do the job.

“We can estimate by satellite what the strength and size of a hurricane is. But only if you go into the hurricane can you really get an accurate measure of its exact center location, the structure, the maximum winds,” said Rick Knabb, a hurricane expert at the Weather Channel and a former director the National Hurricane Center.

The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron’s “Hurricane Hunters” are based at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. Its members trace the origin of hurricane hunting to a 1943 barroom dare by two then-Army Air Corps pilots to fly through a hurricane off Texas.

Today, the missions are carried out largely by Air Force reservists who, after a few days or weeks of chasing storms, return to their jobs in the civilian world.

Hitterman, 49, flies for Delta Airlines most of the time and, as a hobby, races motorcycles.

The flight meteorologist, Major Nicole Mitchell, is an experienced television news meteorologist and mother of an eight-month-old baby boy. She normally lives in Minnesota.

The way Mitchell sees it, the more accurate her data is, the more accurate the forecasts can be that tell U.S. citizens whether to evacuate their homes as Irma or other storms advance.

“It’s a fact that we make a difference,” she said.

In just the last few days, one of the Hurricane Hunter's planes was struck by lightening flying through Irma. The danger to the crew is ever present and there have been numerous close calls over the years.

But their work is vitally important and has saved many lives. Perhaps while you're praying for Irma's victims, you might add a word or two for the brave men and women who deliberately fly into danger to keep us safe.

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