Saturday 5 December, 2020

Watch: Flight Meteorologist Paul Flaherty flies into hurricanes

Paul Flaherty at the Flight Director station.

Paul Flaherty at the Flight Director station.

Bad weather, like hurricanes, grounds all planes - except his and his teams.

What does Paul Flaherty fly? 

He is a Flight Meteorologist and flies a hurricane hunter plane. He is also the Chief in the Science Section at NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center. 


We got to chat with Paul recently after going through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This interview was not only educational but it was eye-opening, thrilling and had its moments of chuckles.

With millions of people petrified of storms and hurricanes, there are few like Paul, who may have their own fears but put them aside to ensure that persons around the globe along the path of these destructive natural disasters can be aware and as prepared as possible.

The 50-year-old Floridian didn't shy away from any questions, not even the first one about his age or when asked to share his scariest experience on the job. 

See how the interview went below:

Loop: Where did you attend college or university and for how long to be a pilot?

Paul: Not a pilot, a Flight Meteorologist. Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, four years - BS Meteorology
and Mississippi State University in Mississippi for two years - MS GeoScience

Loop: What led to you choosing to be a hurricane hunter, I mean a Flight Meteorologist?

Paul: Growing up, I was fascinated with the weather, and so I always imagined I would be a TV meteorologist or NWS forecaster.  I couldn't turn down the opportunity to actually fly into and study the storms.

Loop: Can you take me through the step by step process of your day if you have to go into a hurricane and can you explain how it differs according to the category of the system and maybe location?

Paul: Well, Flight Meteorologists or Flight Directors arrive to work about three hours before the flight to begin working on the mission briefing. We gather the latest information on the hurricane, take a look at our mission objectives for the day's flight, and make a mission forecast based on those objectives.  At two hours before takeoff we conduct a briefing to the flight crew describing the storm, our mission objectives, potential mission risks, and an overview on how best to execute the plan. At one hour before takeoff, we are on the aircraft ensuring everything is working properly at the Flight Director's workstation. After conducting another briefing for the entire crew, we help ensure the aircraft is ready for takeoff.  

Once in the air, we do a quick quality-control check on our instruments since we immediately start sending weather messages off the aircraft. While there is some variability based on the category of storm, how we do our job changes very little.  It is our job to use radar and other information to help us safely navigate our way through the storm to gather whatever information is needed for that specific mission.

Loop: Intense! I'm sure many people ask you this, but how does it feel flying through a hurricane? I’ve experienced “regular” turbulence. What’s it like as you go through to the eye and fly back out?

Paul: Every hurricane is a little different.... sort of its own personality.  I've found that the ride is more about the future of the hurricane, weakening or strengthening, than the actual category of the storm.  For example, I'd rather fly through a steady Cat 4 eyewall than a strengthening Cat 1 Hurricane. Also, a storm weakening because of dry air getting pulled into it will be a lot bouncier than a storm weakening because of cooler water below. Most flights are pretty tame though, perhaps the level of turbulence you might experience on a rougher commercial flight.

The rougher flights can be a little bit like a roller coaster, with a few embedded speed bumps. In small bursts that's not a big problem for us, but when we are being tossed around like a roller coaster in a storm for five or six hours straight, it certainly starts to take a toll on your mind and body.  

Loop: So, what was your scariest moment as a Flight Meteorologist? See I got it right?!

Paul: The moment I realized that I was the most senior person assigned to a specific crew. The reason it was my scariest moment was that it occurred to me while being briefed that the storm - Hurricane Felix, had just rapidly developed into a Category 5 storm, and that the turbulence was so intense that the prior crew had to abort their mission.  That moment was scarier than any moment I ever had on one of our missions.

Loop: Wow! So what keeps you flying into the eye of danger? No pun intended. What do you love about your career?

Paul: I love that we can clearly see the positive impact of our efforts.  For example, if we go out and find the storm stronger, or that the center has shifted or changed track, or that the storm is moving further away from dry air, that information has an immediate and direct impact to some extremely important decisions.

Loop: We understand. It's like that as a journalist too. When you go up and get the details and then we get your information to better equip our readers who comment, it feels gratifying kinda; especially when it's news of a downgrade in intensity, because let's face it, many dread hurricane season. That said, how do you feel about it and why?

Paul: Living in Florida, I dread it as well.  While we're better known for our Hurricane flying, we fly weather missions all-year round.  We could be out flying winter storms in January, or tornado outbreaks in April.  But once Hurricane season comes back around, I know it's something I have to take seriously regardless of my job.  If a storm is threatening central Florida, we will fly our missions from another  location. I hate thinking about the possibility of leaving my family behind to deal with the stresses of an incoming storm on their own.

Loop: I never saw it from that perspective. Thank you for what you do. The Caribbean is truly grateful; if you never got a thank-you from any of us, I'm telling a huge THANK YOU right now on behalf of all us!

Get the latest local and international news straight to your mobile phone for free: