Storms predictable only in their unpredictability

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 4, 2004

As Hurricane Frances bears down on Florida, thoughts of growing up with the threat of tropical destruction fill my head.

Such tropical monsters are awe inspiring both in terms of their strength and their unpredictability.

I learned about the unpredictable nature of tropical storms back in 1996. The newspaper for which I was working assigned me to cover the brave men and women of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron of the Air Force Reserve. The unit is based at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss.

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"Hmm, flying into a hurricane?" I thought. "It sounds dangerous, but how dangerous could it be?"

I agreed and a few days later I was inside a WC-130 plane lumbering toward a storm. The particular storm we were heading into was then Tropical Storm Dolly, soon to be Hurricane Dolly.

For the most part, the flight was filled with long periods of dullness, the droning engines, constant vibration, periodically interrupted by a sudden air pocket or brief burst of turbulence.

Our flight was long, approximately 12 hours, three to get to the storm, six hours in the storm and three heading home.

During the in-storm portion of the flight, the pilots flew in a kind of figure-eight pattern constantly seeking to find the point of lowest barometric pressure - the center of the storm.

As a passenger, I could sense when we struck through the eye, reached the outer bands and turned to head back toward the center. Flying near the center, the plane usually experienced the most turbulence.

The plane, built in the early 1960s, had rather sparse facilities - essentially a tiny urinal near the back of the plane. A user's privacy consisted of a tiny fold-out screen approximately 2 feet wide by 3 feet deep. Describing the area as a "rest room" just didn't fit.

"If the government paid hundreds of dollars for a toilet seat, how much did this wondrous piece of crudeness cost," I thought, as one of the crew members ran through the briefing prior to take-off.

At about the six hour mark of our flight, I felt the call of nature. Being the smart passenger, or so I thought, I waited, patiently, until the plane had reached the outer most band of the storm. When the wings tilted the plane, I made a run for the tiny military version of a bathroom.

Halfway through my trip to the back of the plane, Dolly surprised me. The plane began bumping and shaking with great fury - the worst we'd felt during the whole trip.

Holding on, one-handed, for dear life, I managed to cram my skull between some kind of exposed pipe and the fuselage. The act prevented me from being tossed to the floor of the plane. And a minute or two later, the storm's ferocity, and my terror, subsided.

I learned two lessons that day: Storms can't be trusted and don't drink so much water before getting on an airplane.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Ironton Tribune. He can be reached at (740) 532-1445 ext. 12 or by e-mail to