NOAA’s acclaimed G-IV jet nicknamed “Gonzo” was downed temporarily this week after crew members heard a high pitch squeal coming from the main cabin door at 45,000 feet.
The aging aircraft was flying a mission into Hurricane Jose on Sunday when the noise was heard, forcing it to descend to 15,000 feet to stabilize pressurization, which was never lost.
Gonzo, NOAA’s only jet, has been an item of concern in recent years as it has increasingly needed repairs, including fixing corrosion from blue toilet water that took it out of commission during 2016’s Hurricane Hermine.
This week, the plane was only down for a day, and was flying missions into dangerous Hurricane Maria by Tuesday.
But it underscores the need for a backup or replacement aircraft said Bill Hopkins, executive vice president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization.
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?”
The Gulfstream jet is critical for investigating hurricanes because it can fly at 45,000 feet, while the top altitude for NOAA’s P-3 and C-130 is about 30,000 feet.
NOAA told Nelson’s office that this week’s repairs were to the cabin door seals – a common repair needed as a result of routine wear and tear from opening and closing the main cabin door.
“Of note, the NOAA G-IV flew a total of more than 106 flight hours and 16 tasked missions over 11 days for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma,” NOAA said in its note to Nelson.
At the time the jet had to be diverted for repairs, it had investigated about 75 percent of weather features north and south of Hurricane Jose, which were influencing the track of the storm. It had also deployed ten of 14 sondes. The G-IV flew more than 106 flight hours and 16 tasked missions over 11 days for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Last year, Nelson asked Commerce Secretary and Palm Beach resident Wilbur Ross before he was confirmed about his thoughts on NOAA’s aging planes.
“As you know from my previous answer, my experience with managing shipping assets makes me well acquainted with the costs and inefficiencies of operating older equipment,” Ross said in a written response to Nelson. “If confirmed I look forward to learning more about the status and issues associated with the hurricane hunter aircraft and will weigh carefully the options for their expeditious replacement if needed.