By August 2016, NOAA’s mighty Gulfstream jet had flown scores of hurricane missions, racing at 75 percent the speed of sound above icy cloud tops to gather vital clues on where a tropical cyclone was headed.
But when Hurricane Hermine threatened Florida, the aging aircraft was grounded by toilet water.
Corrosion in the lavatory, possibly caused by the splish-splash of chemical blue water, sent NOAA’s only jet — nicknamed Gonzo — to the repair shop.
While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fleet includes P-3 and C-130 hurricane hunters, it’s the G-IV’s high-flying muscle that improves tropical cyclone track forecasts by 15 percent on average per storm. Whereas G-IV s soar to 45,000 feet, the top altitude for the other two planes is about 30,000 feet.
“There are conditions within 30,000 and 45,000 feet that are important to measure,” said Capt. Michael Silah, commanding officer of NOAA Aircraft Operations Center. “It’s difficult not having a backup, and it certainly concerns me because the mission is so important. The G-IV could have been out for months. Fortunately for us, it was only a few weeks.”
Unfortunately for Florida, the grounding corresponded with the formation of the first hurricane to make landfall in the Sunshine State since 2005’s Hurricane Wilma. Category 1 Hurricane Hermine packed 80-mph winds when it hit the Big Bend in the early-morning hours of Sept. 2.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson pushed this year to require that NOAA get a backup jet, or have access to another aircraft if Gonzo is grounded again.
There are provisions requiring a backup jet in the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, but no money earmarked specifically for it in the administration’s proposed 2018 budget for NOAA. At $4.7 billion, the tentative spending plan for NOAA is a 17 percent reduction from the previous year.
“When it comes to a deadly storm, a day late and a dollar short has fatal consequences,” Nelson said. “For example, we’re in the midst of hurricane season and having to rely on a single decades-old jet to gather information about where a storm is going and how strong it’s going to be. Why on Earth would we not have a backup in place?”
A backup Gulfstream would cost between $90 million and $120 million, said Silah. That estimate includes outfitting the plane with the same technology that’s in Gonzo, including a Doppler radar antenna installed in the tail.
But instead of buying a new plane, Silah said NOAA is investigating more cost effective measures, such as leasing a plane or finding other federal agencies who could make a similar plane available during hurricane season.
“Gulfstreams have a tendency to decline rapidly when they get to 25 years,” Silah said.
Since NOAA started using the aircraft in 1996, the information collected has, on average, improved hurricane track forecasts 15 percent.
“The reason why the G-IV is so good, as opposed to the C-130s and P-3s is because it is faster and flies higher,” said James Franklin, chief of the National Hurricane Center’s hurricane specialist unit, who flew on the aircraft’s first mission. “You can collect data through the depth of the atmosphere.”
The plane: G-IV, a Gulfstream jet. It’s used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Its history: Built in 1994, but NOAA started using it in 1996. It’s nicknamed Gonzo after the Muppet character because of the unusual shape of a nose piece that protects radar equipment.
What’s it do? It goes on hurricane missions to gather vital clues on where a tropical cyclone is headed.
Facts: It can travel at 75 percent the speed of sound and can soar to 45,000 feet. Instruments called dropwindsondes are tossed from the G-IV to measure air pressure, wind speed and direction, and humidity. The information is fed into equations that look at how the atmosphere changes with time. It has a Doppler radar antenna installed in the tail.
Cost: For NOAA to get a backup Gulfstream, it would cost
$90 million to $120 million. That would be the cost of the plane outfitted with similar equipment.