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The Hurricane Hunters

Times photo by

Jack Parrish shows the equipment he uses aboard NOOAA P-3. The Aircraft Operations Center of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration is based at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base.

By DAVID K. ROGERS, Times staff writer
©St. Petersburg Times, published June 1, 1993

TAMPA -- What looks like electrician's tape is unraveling from the propeller of the Allison turboprop, one of four engines pulling the lumbering plane at 1,500 feet.

It's the first day of hurricane season 1993, and the nine crew members aboard the P-3 Orion are trying to measure a gangly storm system swirling over the Bahama Islands.

Now, at 260 mph, the propeller nose of the No. 2 engine -- and maybe the mission -- is unwrapping.

Flight engineer Greg Bast and pilot Ron Philippsborn glance at each other, then respond in unison: "The heater boot." The hard rubber cap on the propeller's nose prevents the propeller from icing up.

"You just don't want to lose a boot. . . . That'll really mess it up," Bast said. They kill that engine and climb 5,000 feet to gain more time and maneuvering room.

Fifteen minutes later, in a calculated risk that could kill a vital mission, they restart the engine. As the Allison coughs back to life, more black tape unravels and then, suddenly, blows harmlessly into the sky.

The boot holds, and the P-3 resumes its search for Tropical Depression 1.

The easy part -- being slapped around by the world's heaviest weather -- lies ahead.

It's all in a day's work for the Aircraft Operations Center of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, headquartered since January at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base. Last week, for the first time, workers took took to the air from MacDill in search of would-be hurricanes.

While most people know them as the Hurricane Hunters, the 75 men and women spend only about 15 percent of their time on hurricanes.

The rest finds them skimming over the Arctic tundra, zipping across the Micronesian Pacific for months on end or flying at 20,000 feet above Oklahoma studying killer tornadoes -- all to assist some of the most advanced physical science research in the world today.

Science 1,000 feet up

Jack Parrish zips the blue jumpsuit over his Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts and deck shoes just before sun up.

Time for a little world-class science at 1,000 feet.

Parrish's office this day will be located above the Great Bahama Bank inside an angry piece of weather called Tropical Depression 1.

The 39-year-old Parrish, married and the father of two small boys, lives in the mortgaged confines of Carrollwood and often dresses as if it's his day off. But when he dons the blue flight suit, he becomes flight director and meteorologist for NOAA flight 9306011.

"We're glad you could join us on our first flight from Tampa," Parrish yells above the din of the four droning Allisons.

To put Parrish's flying office into some perspective:

Most people never even dream of flying into the heart of a big storm, let alone a hurricane. A handful of Air Force crews do it, but they typically enter a hurricane at 10,000 feet, relying on the higher altitude to recover in case something goes wrong.

NOAA flights usually enter hurricanes at 5,000 feet, but Parrish likes to go in at 1,500 feet or lower when conditions allow. At the lower altitudes, they are apt to find conditions more like those on the ground and water below.

And since today's assignment is just a tropical depression with winds in the 40-mph range, Parrish asks pilot Philippsborn to enter the system at 1,000 feet.

At 1,000 feet, every whitetop on the violent water is clearly visible until the storm cell engulfs the aircraft, causing it to lurch forward.

The tough, stubby plane punches through the cell's other side and roars over a scene straight out of Fantasy Island: Isolated islands of lush green bordered by every shade of impossibly blue water. Yachts are anchored near docks leading to peaked-roof mansions with creature comforts like pools and spas.

"Looks like a nice day down there," observes navigator Sean White as he gazes for a moment at North Eleuthra Island.

But some areas haven't fared so well.

At 1,000 feet, it's easy to see that South Bimini Island took a big hit from Hurricane Andrew last August. Trees are still stripped, debris is piled up and roofs still need replacement.

Eluding the beast

Parrish will never forget Andrew.

When the 1992 hurricane season began, it seemed clear that Parrish would chase his share of big storms, gather up enough research information to sink the biggest computer and help care for his 6-month-old and 3-year-old sons at home.

"I had flown into Andrew a day and a half before it hit," Parrish said. "Even then, we could tell: There was no place for this storm to go but west."

Times photo by MACK GOETHE
The NOAA P-3 is shown at MacDill Air Force Base after a mission in 1993. The pointed projection at the back of the plane is a side scanning radar.

Parrish and his family lost everything to Andrew: their house, their furniture, their possessions.

They fled with their lives in the hours before the big hurricane struck.

"It was pure capricious luck," Parrish said of their evacuation.

Despite flying in NOAA's P-3s since 1980, "I'd never been in a hurricane on the ground before. But our friends had been in a super-typhoon on Guam, so we thought we'd be safer riding it out with them. I figured they'd know when to get in the bathtub and pull the mattress over our heads."

Their friends' home was just eight miles to the north, but that was enough to make all the difference.

Parrish speaks of Andrew with awe, one second as a homeowner, the next as a career meteorologist: "We had storm shutters on the house, but some of them blew away. That's all it took. It even blew away our ceiling fans. What a phenomenal thing. We never did find them.

"It was so good we weren't in that house."

When NOAA officials decided to move their aircraft operations out of Miami to Tampa, the Parrishes knew just what to look for when they went house shopping. "We won't have to evacuate even in a Category 5 storm," he said of their new Carrollwood home.

Half for, half against

Parrish said NOAA's decision to move the aircraft center to Tampa Bay was good for his young family, but, "If you were talk to the crew aboard this flight, you'd probably find that half of them were happy with the move, and half were not."

For NOAA, though, Tampa is a piece of cake.

For years, NOAA's aircraft center was shoehorned into a cramped corner of Miami International Airport, all but overshadowed by the corporate airline giants Pan Am and Eastern, whose headquarters were located there.

For this privilege, NOAA paid roughly $450,000 each year to the airport authority for office and hangar space, and landing rights.

But when the Department of Defense released its intended base closure list more than a year ago, Tampa civic leaders were shocked to see that MacDill had been included. They quickly began searching for new reasons to keep MacDill open.

Talk about a match. Tampa and NOAA found each other and played to each other's needs. Tampa hopes to bask in the glow of a federal operation headquartered at MacDill. NOAA gets much more office and hangar space at a very reasonable rate -- free.

The old home

It's purely coincidental, but the satellite imagery guiding the P-3 to the stormy weather this day puts the plane on a path from MacDill directly over the town of Homestead, Andrew's first victim.

The devastation is still easy to spot.

"Hey, Jack, you can darn near see your sailboat from here," White said.

The Turkey Point nuclear power plant looms to the south. It took a direct hit and was out for months. The neighboring Biscayne Bay National Park still looks torn up.

"You see that lake right over there?" Parrish asks as he looks out the window.

"That's where my old home is. I know this area well."

Fifteen minutes later and Tropical Depression 1 is looming dead ahead.

© Copyright 1998 St. Petersburg Times.St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.