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First Flight: Hurricane Hunters Head to Eye of Beatriz
A hurricane-hunting WC-130J aircraft zooms through the sky.
Credit: U.S. Air Force, Tech. Sgt. James Pritchett.

For the first time this year, Air Force hurricane hunters have taken to the skies and are approaching the eye of a storm this afternoon.

The season's inaugural flight is making a beeline for Tropical Storm Beatriz, a system barreling toward Mexico, packing winds of 65 mph (100 kph). Beatriz is predicted to become a hurricane later today (June 20).

A WC-130J aircraft, a hulking prop plane nearly 100 feet (30 meters) long, is slated to fly an 'A' pattern through the storm, which could begin to affect Mexico's southwestern coast tonight.

Beatriz is the second named storm of the 2011 Eastern Pacific hurricane season. Hurricane Adrian, which reached major status, but stayed out at sea, was the first. [Related: How Are Hurricanes Named?]

"There are no surprises here," said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "This storm is right on schedule, right where you'd expect it to be."

'Fish storms'

This year's Pacific hurricane season is predicted to be below average, with a 70 percent chance of producing between nine and 15 named storms. The average number is 15 or 16 named storms.

That may sound like a lot, Feltgen said, but most Pacific storms are so-called "fish storms" — they affect ocean-dwellers far more than people. "They form way out in the ocean and die way out in the ocean," Feltgen told OurAmazingPlanet.

Pilot's view: Aboard a WC-130J, sunset after flying into a hurricane.
Pilot's view: Aboard a WC-130J, sunset after flying into a hurricane.
Credit: U.S. Air Force, Major Chad E. Gibson.

However, since Beatriz is heading toward land, the call went out for hurricane hunters.

"If there is any potential for a land threat, we're going to send an aircraft into it," Feltgen said.

That's because the aircraft gather invaluable data on temperature, humidity, wind speed and air pressure that satellites simply can't.

Feltgen compared the two technologies to a visit with a doctor. Satellites can tell forecasters something dangerous is developing, but the hurricane hunters perform an MRI of a storm. "They go inside and find out what's going on," Feltgen said.

The data help forecasters better understand the behavior of a storm, but also are plugged into forecast models, which, as more and more data are gathered, improves forecast accuracy over time.

Active Atlantic

Although the Pacific is projected to have a relatively quiet hurricane season, 2011 is projected to be an active year for hurricanes in the Atlantic, though none have yet formed there. Meteorologists say there's a 70 percent chance the region will see 12 to 18 storms, in contrast to the average 11.

However, Feltgen said, in one way, those predictions are moot.

"It doesn't matter if there are going to be 50 storms or one storm," Feltgen said. "If that one storm hits you, that's bad. You need to go into the season preparing for a hurricane."

Andrea Mustain is a staff writer for OurAmazingPlanet, a sister site to LiveScience. Reach her at Follow her on Twitter @AndreaMustain.