Into the storm: Ars visits the big bird that punches through the eyewall

The Mighty Hercules stands in the foreground, with the Gulfstream IV behind it. (credit: Lee Hutchinson)

Every minute of every hour, sophisticated weather satellites are circumnavigating the world, keeping vigil over the planet's atmosphere and streaming data back to the ground. But when it comes to hurricanes and their imminent landfalls, a somewhat lower and slower tool is the most valuable: the venerable WC-130 aircraft. A design dating back to 1962, these durable workhorses fly directly into the heart of the storm, where no satellite can see.

The “Mighty Hercules,” capable of flying about 18 hours without refueling, has been the mainstay of the US Air Force’s “Hurricane Hunters” program since 1999. Just weeks before the beginning of the 2016 Atlantic hurricane season on June 1, the National Hurricane Center and the Air Force invited the press to take a close-up look at one of these planes (along with a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Gulfstream IV) at Scholes Field in Galveston.

This sliver of an island along the northern Texas coast has seen its share of large cyclones. It's close to where the devastating Hurricane Ike made landfall in 2008, and before that Hurricane Alicia passed directly over the island in 1983. Galveston's most memorable hurricane is the Great Storm of 1900, which caused an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 fatalities and is still the deadliest natural disaster in US history. Fortunately, no storms threatened on the late spring afternoon when Ars visited Scholes Field. Instead, under partly sunny skies we had a great opportunity to check out the tech used to fly into, and above, the most powerful terrestrial storms known to humans.

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