Not everyone gets to fly through some of the biggest storms threatening the Atlantic and Gulf coasts aboard Miss Piggy and Kermit.
Then again, few people have Lieutenant Commander Cathy Martin’s job: hurricane hunter.
She is one of 11 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hurricane hunters based at the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center in Tampa – the closest such pilots to South Florida. The next time a hurricane approaches the U.S., she’ll likely be called on to fly through its severe turbulence, high winds and rain to gather crucial forecasting data.
This is LCDR Martin’s third full season in the role, which took some getting used to.
“The first time it’s like you want to me do what? Head right for it?” she recalls.
That’s the opposite of what she did in a previous role with NOAA, when she piloted in clear conditions measuring snow.
“What you’re seeing on the radar screen is something in my previous mission I would have turned away from,” she says.
Her first experience flying through such an intense storm came in 2009, when she was working out of Barbados and headed east to meet Tropical Storm Ana.
“That’s the most memorable one to me because that’s the one where I actually got to sit at the controls and actually fly the aircraft,” Martin says. “Each storm is different, so you never know what you’re going to expect, so I didn’t really know what to expect. So I was quite apprehensive, a little bit nervous.”
By then Martin, who became a NOAA Corps officer in 2000, was nearing the end of a decade of training to become a hurricane hunter. But, not having flown such a mission herself, she had to use other pilots’ accounts about what they had gone through as a sort of barometer.
“It was definitely interesting. I got to experience some turbulence. I thought it would be a lot worse, but it actually could have been a lot more turbulent than it was,” says Martin, who also flew east of the Caribbean islands to reach Hurricane Bill in 2009.
She flies research missions on NOAA’s two P-3 planes – called Miss Piggy and Kermit, with nose art to match – during an operational season, which lasts from June 1 through Nov. 30. Up to 18 people can be on board, including flight crew, air crew, scientists, and at least two pilots – and three if they are flying several flights in a row, Martin says.
They maneuver through storms ranging from tropical depressions to hurricanes, gathering wind, temperature and much more data that are sent back to the National Hurricane Center in Miami and used in its models. The radar runs continuously, and the planes drop devices called dropsondes all the way through the turbulent rain bands and eye wall of the storm, in the eye – the calm, low-pressure center of a hurricane – and then again on the far side of the storm.
The information that’s collected is key to helping forecasters determine how strong a hurricane is going to be, and where it is going to go.
Martin says making those contributions is the best part of her job.
“Our job definitely has a great impact on the national public. We do this for a reason, so that means a lot. We’re supporting our nation, and we’re making sure that people get the information so that if a storm’s coming to the United States, we can provide them the information so they can get out of harm’s way, and provide them as much advance notice as possible,” she says.
Martin went to the Florida Institute of Technology to be a pilot. During an internship at the National Weather Service, she met a NOAA Corps officer and learned about the service’s mission and the aircraft they fly. She graduated with two bachelor’s degrees in aviation management/flight technology and aviation meteorology in 1998, applied to the NOAA Corps in 1999, and became an officer in January 2000.
She spent two years on a NOAA ship, and then was accepted to the aviation side, where she transferred in 2002. She started in a lighter aircraft, a turbo commander, and flew with the snow survey mission out of Minnesota for five years, traveling across the snow regions of the continental U.S., southern Canada, and Alaska.
She then applied to be a P-3 pilot and was accepted, spending 2½ years training with the Navy in Jacksonville and in Maryland.
Martin finally transferred back to NOAA as part of its hurricane hunter mission in March 2010.
During the biggest storm of 2011, Hurricane Irene, she flew up to the Carolinas for the landfall mission when it came on shore.
There were also plenty of storms out there that didn’t threaten the U.S. last year, she says.
“It depends throughout the year on what the season brings us. If a lot of the storms are really far offshore and they’re really difficult to reach, we may not fly in them as much,” she says.
Martin says she never relaxes flying through tropical storms.
“Now that I’ve done it so much, you know what to expect, but you never want to lose that safety factor. You always want to be on guard for what could happen,” she says.
At the same time, not knowing what she will encounter in each storm is the most challenging part of her job, as they bring different conditions, turbulence, and hail on the plane, she says.
“And the uncertainty too. You’re prepared for six months to go do this. And tomorrow something could form out there. And tomorrow they could tell us we’re going to fly on Saturday, and you just always have to be prepared for it,” Martin says. “You always have to be ready to go.”
Below: Martin in front of Miss Piggy. The plane has the FAA registration number N43RF.