Hurricane Hunters take flight from NOAA aircraft ops center


LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – NOAA’S 100,000 square-feet aircraft operations center is located in a perfect spot – right in the middle of Florida, at Lakeland Linder International Airport.

A fleet of nine specially-equipped aircraft take flight to catch up not only tropical storms and hurricanes during the Atlantic hurricane season, but on data-gathering missions around the globe.

“We are tasked June 1 through November 30 to support a range of missions tasked by the Hurricane Center,” explains NOAA flight director Michael Holmes. “Then we have a full range of research taskings available to these aircraft as well.”

These tasks may include research and study of changing climates, the patterns and effects of other severe weather such as tornadoes or earthquakes, the earth’s ocean currents, atmospheric conditions, and even gravity.

NOAA moved to this new facility and hangar in 2018. For many years, the headquarters was located inside historic “Hangar 5” at MacDill Airforce Base in Tampa. But when the base needed more room, NOAA Flight Operations had to relocate.

Hurricane hunting aircraft here include two Lockheed WP-3 D Orion propeller planes nick-named Miss Piggy and Kermit. These are the planes are outfitted as flying laboratories and are capable of flying directly through the wall of a hurricane, and into the eye of the storm.

A G-IV Gulfstream Jet, called “Gonzo” takes storm measurements at much higher altitudes, above 40,000 feet. Other planes stored and maintained in Lakeland include a Beechcraft King and a De Havilland Twin Otter.

The planes are all carefully maintained to make sure they are well-prepared for their challenging missions.

“We have triple, quadruple checks on the aircraft, says NOAA science and engineer technician Jim Warnecke. “Everybody on the crew has looked on the outside of the airplane to make sure there are no panels missing or screws loose. We check everything on the inside two, three times.”   

Most NOAA Hurricane Hunter pilots are military service veterans and familiar with the planes here.

“The folks here who fly on the planes actually work on the planes,” says P3 pilot and Navy veteran Adam Abitbol. “So there is a lot of pride in the work, a lot of attention to detail. These planes are in tremendously good shape for their age.”

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