Two of the world's premier research aircraft, the renowned NOAA WP-3D Orions, participate in a wide variety of national and international meteorological, oceanographic and environmental research programs in addition to their widely known use in hurricane research and reconnaissance. These versatile turboprop aircraft are equipped with an unprecedented variety of scientific instrumentation, radars and recording systems for both in-situ and remote sensing measurements of the atmosphere, the earth and its environment. Obtained as new aircraft from the Lockheed production line in the mid-70's, these robust and well maintained aircraft have led NOAA's continuing effort to monitor and study hurricanes and other severe storms, the quality of the atmosphere, the state of the ocean and its fish population, and climate trends.
With its world-wide operating capability, they have participated in numerous research experiments from the Indian Ocean, Australia and the Solomon Islands to Ireland, the North Sea and the Alps. On a national scope they have operated from the Arctic Ocean and Alaska through most regions of the U.S. and into the Caribbean. Hurricane and tropical storm research has taken place in the Atlantic, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Pacific. Estimated useful lifetime for these two research platforms is another 10 to 15 years.
The WP-3D Orion aircraft are on standby or deployed for hurricane research and reconnaissance 150 days each year. Each aircraft averages between 90 and 120 days deployed for other research projects, 30 to 60 days involved in instrumentation installation and calibration and 30 days for maintenance and training while flying 275 to 300 hours every year.
The objective of the WP-3 hurricane research mission is to gather meteorological data from inside and around hurricanes to increase our understanding of these storms. Data collected helps to refine computer forecast models and increase the accuracy of operational hurricane forecasts. On a typical flight, a WP-3 gathers staggering amounts of information using a wide variety of sensors.
Two of the most visually prominent features of the aircraft are its belly and tail radars. The belly radome houses a high power C-band radar that scans horizontally out to a range of 200 miles. The tail cone houses an X-band Doppler radar with a vertical scan and a range of 60 miles. By combining information from these two radars scanning in perpendicular planes a three-dimensional radar image can be formed throughout each flight.
In order to obtain meteorological measurements below the aircraft's flight level expendable instruments called GPS Dropwindsondes are utilized. Once launched from the aircraft these instruments free-fall to the surface and radio back readings of temperature, pressure, dew point, wind speed and wind direction twice per second. Each dropsonde provides a detailed vertical sounding of the storm not available by other means. In order to obtain oceanographic measurements, the WP-3's are also capable of launching airborne expendable bathythermographs. These instruments fall by parachute to the ocean surface, then deploy a probe that provides water temperature measurements down to a depth of 600 feet. This provides information on the amount of thermal energy available to fuel the storm.
On board the aircraft are a suite of instruments that gather data on the physical composition of clouds throughout the storm. Also on board is a stepped frequency microwave radiometer that is able to make precise measurements of surface wind speeds. Additionally the aircraft carries a full complement of sensors that constantly record a variety of meteorological parameters.
All this information is collected and managed by an extensive on board computer system. The majority of data is stored on board the aircraft for later analysis while certain data is transmitted by satellite in near-real time to the National Centers for Environmental Prediction and the National Hurricane Center.
The primary responsibility for hurricane reconnaissance lies with the United States Air Force Reserve. NOAA's WP-3 Orion aircraft are sometimes called upon to augment the AFRES C-130 Hercules aircraft in the performance of this vital mission. Much different in objective from hurricane research, which seeks to gather as much information as possible, reconnaissance missions gather much more focused data. The objective of research is to improve the science of forecasting future storms. The objective of reconnaissance is to provide National Hurricane Center forecasters with the information necessary to accurately forecast an existing storm.
Since during the course of a research flight, the aircraft is often in position to gather reconnaissance data as well, most WP-3 missions have a dual role. In addition, the aircraft are sometimes called upon to fly missions solely for the purpose of reconnaissance. Air Force regulations prevent their C-130 aircraft from flying in Cuban airspace, therefore when a storm is within 50 miles of the Cuban coast, reconnaissance responsibility shifts to NOAA. Additionally, if the Air Force aircraft and crews are stretched too thin by multiple storms or successive storms, the NOAA WP-3's provide them with a well deserved window of rest.
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