Commander Justin Kibbey flies planes into hurricanes for a living.
Kibbey is a former Navy pilot and current aircraft commander for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Commissioned Officer Corps, one the seven federal uniformed services of the US. He is one of a handful of pilots, called “hurricane hunters,” who fly treacherous around-the-clock data-gathering missions for the NOAA.
“It’s been a long couple weeks,” he says, speaking to me from Florida six days after his most recent hurricane mission, when he punched through the eyewall of Hurricane Irma just before it made landfall in Cuba, in a four-engine P-3 Orion plane named Miss Piggy (he’ll explain later).
The P-3 he flies is filled with scientific instruments, radar panels, and NOAA scientists who drop parachuted, GPS-coordinated probes called “dropwindsondes” (“dropsondes” for short) that collect crucial data as they fall to the sea. When we hear about hurricane wind speeds on the news, those numbers are coming from these missions; so is the information that authorities use to make calls about who needs to evacuate, and when.
Kibbey spoke to Quartz about what it’s like to fly directly into the eye of a hurricane, and why anyone would willingly do that in the first place. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Quartz: How long have you been flying into hurricanes with the NOAA Corps?
Kibbey: I was in the Navy for almost 10 years, and I transferred my commission over to the NOAA Corps in 2010. This is my eighth hurricane season.
How many hurricanes have you flown into, total?
That’s a good question. Maybe 40 or 50, somewhere around there.
What was your most intense hurricane mission?
Before the last two weeks, my first one was the most memorable to me. But we did a flight on Irma just before it made landfall in Barbuda. It went from a Cat-4 [short for “Category-4”] to a Cat-5 while we were in it. That was by far the most intense-turbulence storm that I’ve ever flown before.
Did the data you picked up determine that category change from a 4 to a 5?
Yes, it did. Our data gets combined with the Air Force Hurricane Hunters’, and that’s all sent in to these intensity models, and they say “Hey, this is a Category 5 storm.”
Is the data transferred real-time?
We have dropsondes on the plane, and basically after the dropsondes leaves the plane, it’s recording temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed. That information goes directly to the plane, and from the plane it goes directly out to the users—National Hurricane Center, the Environmental Modeling Center. It’s real-time data that gets to the users so it can be implemented into the models as soon as possible.
So what made the flight into Irma your most intense ever?
It’s a lot of updrafts and downdrafts, which the layperson would correlate to flying in a commercial flight that starts to bounce around. It can be very uncomfortable. The plane can shake violently, and it can be very, very loud. It’s hard to read instruments, it’s hard to read air speeds. You can hear the rain hitting the wind screens. It can be a very unnerving experience for folks who haven’t done it before.
Is it no longer an unnerving experience for you?
It is definitely lessened. I would say I have a great respect for what we do, and we don’t take it lightly. There’s always a kind of heightened awareness; it’s not scary, but you’re definitely on your toes, you’re aware of things. You always have respect for the storm.
What is it like crossing through the eye wall and into the eye?
It’s usually where the most intense rain is at, and the most intense updrafts and downdrafts. It’s challenging to fly, because you’re being shaken around. It’s the most intense portion of the storm.
I like to say that the storm kind of spits you out into the eye. [Inside the eye of the storm] it’s very nice. It’s usually pleasant. Sometimes it can be a little turbulent but normally it’s calm and smooth and easy flying within the eye. For Irma, it had this beautiful stadium effect where the clouds were just thousands of feet above you. It’s a surreal experience.
And then you know that you have to get the data, find out where the storms at, and then you have to go back out through the opposing eye wall. So it’s a moment of calm before you have to go back through it again.
What do you see as you fly towards the eye of a storm?
For the most part, once we get into the outer bands we’re usually in the clouds or the rain, so you don’t see a whole lot. We’re really looking at our radars. We have a whole suite of radars that we’re viewing—ones that look out very long distances, and ones that look out short distances. We’re game-planning at that point how we’re going to enter the storm, from a tactical perspective, like how we’re going to fly the plane in the pattern we need to fly based on what the radar returns are giving us.
Where did your desire to fly into hurricanes come from?
I really enjoy flying. It’s been a passion of mine. I got to the point where I was at the Navy and I was at a crossroads in my career—I could stay in the Navy and continue with that, or look for another opportunity. I’ve always had a fascination with weather. I’m the guy who’s outside before a thunderstorm comes and you can feel that cold air coming at you and watching the storm—I’ve always been kind of a storm nut. And NOAA just sounded like a cool opportunity to transfer my commission over and…fly a plane into a hurricane. [laughs] I’m very happy that I did it. It combines my passion for flying and let’s me be kind of a weather geek.
I think if you tallied most of the pilots most of them have some type of affinity towards weather, different types of weather. It’s always an underlying thing for most of the pilots here.
How do you train to fly into a hurricane?
I was in the Navy for almost 10 years, and the Navy flies planes to do all kinds of things, from hunting submarines to surveillance missions in war zones and things like that. But you don’t fly a plane like we do at NOAA. There’s no simulators or training sessions to learn how to fly into a hurricane.
The only way is to go out and do it, to have a junior pilot in the left seat and a senior pilot in the right seat. And the first time that you’re going to fly into a hurricane, you’re flying—you’re at the controls. You just have to listen to what the senior pilot and flight engineer are saying. They’re talking you through it. It’s very much the epitome of on-the-job training.
How did you feel during your first flight into a hurricane?
I would say I was 80% excited and 20% kind of scared. Having not been in that environment, it’s just very challenging. It was a night flight into Hurricane Earl out by Barbados back in the summer of 2010. It was an exhilarating experience, but when I was done I was completely shot, because it was so intense and that just took a lot out of me.
Is there a lot of competition for this job? Do a lot of people want to do what you’re doing?
I don’t know—but I can shoot from the hip and tell you that a lot my friends who are [pilots] in the Navy still or have gotten out and are flying commercially tell me that there’s no way that they’d want to do this. Most of the people I know say “I’m glad you’re doing it, and I’m glad it’s not me.”
How risky are these missions? Has there ever been an accident?
NOAA has never lost a plane in a hurricane, so I’m knocking on wood as we speak. We do it safely. There’s been close calls here and there, but we learn from those. The end-all be-all is that there’s people on the plane, people with families, and our goal is to get data out to the public—but we never put the plane in precarious positions. We want to go home to our families.
I read somewhere that there are paintings of Muppets on the side of the planes. Specifically Miss Piggy, Kermit the frog, and Gonzo. What’s up with that?
We have two P-3s and a G-4. This is well before my time, but when we got the first P-3 in 1976 or ’77, somebody said, “The plane really flies like a pig.” That became a common thing to say, that the plane was a pig. Somebody started calling it Miss Piggy. So NOAA eventually got the rights from Jim Hansen to officially name our plane Miss Piggy.
When we got the second one, people said it needed a name too—so it became Kermit. Then we got the G-4 and it became Gonzo.
So you fly Miss Piggy?
What do you do when it’s not hurricane season?
The planes themselves are flying laboratories. Instruments can be plug and play; so [in the off-season] we do air chemistry, ocean projects, or satellite verification. Just this past January we were in Ireland doing a satellite verification for one of NOAA’s line offices. We have a tornado research program we’re doing in Alabama in the spring of 2018…we definitely stay busy.
Where would we be without the data your missions gather?
Without it, people wouldn’t be evacuated. We wouldn’t know where these storms are going to go or how intense they’re going to be. There would be loss of life because of it. That’s the part of our job that drives me, that this information is valuable. Especially in light of the last three weeks with these two storms; I’d like to think that the data we provided saved lives, got people to evacuate when they needed to evacuate, and there’s no better feeling than that.