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Inside a Category 5 hurricane

3:36 PM, Jun 1, 2012   |    comments
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MacDill Air Force Base, Florida -- Nine years ago, during Hurricane Irene, 10 News Chief Meteorologist Jim Van Fleet got the chance to ride about one of the hurricane hunter planes based at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base.  It turned out to be one of the most dangerous flights in NOAA's history.

The goal was to fly as low as possible in as strong a wind as possible to try and understand why hurricanes get so big in such a short amount of time.  That's known as "rapid deepening."

"Typically on a hurricane hunter mission, you're flying miles above the ocean," said Chis Landsea, PhD, Science and Operations Officer at the National Hurricane Center.  "When you look down at the sea -- even if it's 40 or 50 foot waves -- you can't see that.  It looks flat. But when we were flying those Fabian and Isabel flights and we're only a few hundred feet above the ocean, you see each wave and you can tell how high it is.  And some of those were getting dang close -- it appear -- to hitting the plane."

During the flight, the plane's third engine caught fire on the last descent.  That could have killed everone on board. Pilots shut down the engine in the middle of a category five hurricane and were forced to ascend to a safer altitude.

Was it worth it?

"The measurements that we did take in there have really helped the science develop and helped advance our computer models," said Landsea. "Because now we understand what happens at that ocean surface."