After 10 years as a Navy pilot, Capt. Michael Silah wasn’t ready to quit flying. He applied to be a pilot for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and never looked back.
Now commanding officer of NOAA’s aircraft operation center, he has years of experience in piloting aircraft through and around hurricanes to give the National Hurricane Center information about the strength and direction of tropical storms.
“I grew up in Florida, and I understand what these storms can do,” Silah said Wednesday during a stopover of several “hurricane hunter” aircraft in New Orleans on a pre-hurricane season awareness tour.
Hundreds of people showed up at Lakefront Airport to tour two of the planes that fly into storms and meet the people who fly them.
Silah led NOAA missions during Hurricane Katrina and said it was the highest and lowest point of his career: highest, because the hurricane hunter teams were able to send back important information to better inform forecasters, which allowed them to issue solid warnings to the public.
“I’ve flown Category 5 storms before. I just had never seen one that wide,” he said.
It was the lowest point because Katrina still resulted in widespread devastation and loss of life, he said.
“The last time I flew over this airport, it was water,” he said.
Some of the aircraft fly through a storm, while others fly in front of it looking for steering currents that can help forecast where it will go.
“Some days, it’s as benign as a commercial flight,” Silah said. “Other days, it’s rough. The storms that are really dangerous are the ones coming together or falling apart.”
The airplanes and their crews take measurements that help determine wind speeds, temperatures and other factors used by forecasters.
One method of getting information is dropping instruments from the airplane that resemble the canisters customers use at a bank’s drive-up windows.
The tubes contain computer equipment that can take real-time readings of conditions as they drop through the air, giving forecasters a more complete picture.
“An easy way to think about it is a weather balloon in reverse,” said Maj. Kyle Larson, a meteorologist with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron of the U.S. Air Force Reserve, known as the hurricane hunters.
Initially, a plane will fly low through a forming storm to determine if there is wind circulation indicative of strengthening. “The stronger the storm gets, the higher up we go to allow for adjusting to downdrafts and staying out of the hail and lightning,” he explained.
The flights can last anywhere from six to 12 hours, depending on where the storm is located. They carry a five-person crew, although that may be expanded if there are relief pilots or trainees aboard.
The National Hurricane Center can call on the crews to do flights from the U.S. Virgin Islands all the way to Hawaii.
Flying into a storm isn’t usually smooth sailing, Larson said.
“It’s like a bumpy carwash. Once or twice a year you’ll get a pretty good ride,” he said.
It’s that dangerous job that NOAA officials hope will remind people that now is the time to get ready for the Atlantic Ocean hurricane season, which officially starts June 1.
“There’s a direct relation between what the hurricane hunters do and keeping you alive,” said Rick Knabb, director of NOAA’s National Hurricane Center.
Although information from satellites is critical to the forecasting work the center does, Knabb said the airplanes also are essential.
“I was on shift when Hurricane Katrina went to Category 5, and it was because of information from these aircraft” that forecasters were able to make that determination, he said.
Knabb said Wednesday’s event was meant to help families start talking about their own preparedness.
“All the technology isn’t going to reach its full potential unless the public take this chance to prepare,” he said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.