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Hurricane Juan Research Flight: Flying into the Storm

Hurricane Juan was the fourth tropical storm that Canadian weather researchers have flown into during the past four years. The Meteorological Research Branch of Canada has funding from Search and Rescue to learn more about dangerous hurricanes moving into Canadian territory. Hurricane Juan was an excellent research opportunity for our team, and I was one of the crewmembers (support meteorologist) on board the National Research Council's Convair aircraft the night we flew into the storm.

National Research Council and Environment Canada research scientists conducting a research flight. Photo: National Research Council and CHC
National Research Council and Environment Canada research scientists conducting a research flight. Photo: National Research Council and Canadian Hurricane Centre

Convair 580 research aircraft. Photo: National Research Council
Convair 580 research aircraft. Photo: National Research Council

This piece is a descriptive timeline of the flight and meteorological conditions we experienced the night of September 28th, 2003. See the map for the flight pattern and the locations where we dropped our weather instrument packages (dropsondes).

Dropsondes graph for Hurricane Juan. Photo: Environment Canada © 2009
Dropsondes graph for Hurricane Juan. Photo: Environment Canada © 2009

  • 9:45 p.m. - aircraft is outside at the IMP hangar at Halifax International which looked like a ghost-town on the drive over; it is closed to all commercial flights tonight; pilots are powering up and technicians are frantically trying to fix a problem with the power supply.
  • 9:55 p.m. - the power supply problem is fixed; heavy gusts of wind already moving into airport and occasionally rock the plane which is still stationary.
  • 10:02 p.m. - all clear for departure; rain intensity is picking up as we climb out and head to the south.
  • 10:08 p.m. - you can feel wind buffeting the aircraft with a side-to-side motion; winds are out of the southeast at 70 knots at 3000 feet.
  • 10:10 p.m. - continuing light to moderate turbulence due to strong southeast winds of 75-80 knots about 12 000 feet.
  • 10:15 p.m. - releasing first dropsonde instrument about 20 kilometres offshore of Prospect, Nova Scotia; big sigh of relief when wind data comes in (previously there were problems with instruments' wind data).
  • 10:30 p.m. - first transect through the eye heading south along the storm track; light-moderate turbulence stopped once in the eye.
  • 10:35 p.m. - waiting for rain to show up on radar but it never does - the south side of the storm is dry; we are depending on instruments for information - can't see a thing out the windows (night); see picture of the radar image.

Juan radar image
Juan radar image

  • 10:41 p.m. - noting very warm airmass with freezing level at 16 500 feet and flight-level temperature of only -5°C.
  • 10:45 p.m. - beginning discussions with flight crew and ground support meteorologist (Jim Abraham) about adjusting our flight plan to turn around and fly through the eye again before it hits land.
  • 11:00 p.m. - making a hard right turn to the northwest; stop dropping instruments for a while.
  • 11:15 p.m. - I request that we now start heading north…I'm getting nervous about possibly missing flying through the centre again, based on discussion with Jim regarding the acceleration speed of the storm
  • 11:27 p.m. - begin resuming high-frequency dropsonde deployments; now heading northeast parallel to the Nova Scotia coast and about 70 kilometres southeast of Shelburne.
  • 11:40 p.m. - things get interesting again…rain signals return on radar; turbulence increasing again; icing occurring on wings.
  • 11:43 p.m. - nose-cone radar shows that we are in the eye again; there is a steady turbulent shake of the plane, but nothing severe; co-pilot notes ice crystals/mixed-phase ice on the aircraft suggesting high ice concentrations in the clouds; I note very warm flight-level temperature of -2°C at 20 000 feet.
  • 11:46 p.m. - now just east of the eye and about 40 kilometres south of Halifax; moderate turbulence, southerly winds about 80 knots at flight level.
  • 11:53 p.m. - continue to see incredibly strong southerly winds below the aircraft down to the ocean from dropsonde data; a few strong updrafts push plane around.
  • 12:05 a.m. - decide to decrease frequency of dropsonde deployments; moving further away from the storm centre.
  • 12:10 a.m. - talking with Jim at the weather office where the weather is going downhill rapidly; speaks of blackouts in the city.
  • 12:26 a.m. - last dropsonde being released, that makes 25 total; happy mood among the crew - wind data from sondes was a lot better than hurricane Isabel; Walter says he is very happy with cloud microphysical data.
  • 12:30 a.m. - pilot is contemplating whether to attempt a landing in Sydney, making the left turn.
  • 12:40 a.m. - weather deteriorating in Sydney with gusty winds, decide to recover in Stephenville, Newfoundland.
  • 12:42 a.m. - talking with Jim who is in lobby of weather office building which was evacuated; conditions are near the worst in the city.
  • 1:00 a.m. - en route to Stephenville, encountering sudden turbulent jolts likely due to mountain turbulence; these jolts worse than in the hurricane!
  • 1:15 a.m. - landing in Stephenville, Terra-Firma!

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