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Hurricane Hunters Fly to Tropical Storm Debby's Heart

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Thick clouds surround the Hurricane Hunters' WC-130J aircraft as it heads into Tropical Storm Lee in early September 2011. (Image credit: U.S. Air Force, Staff Sgt. Valerie Smock.)

Tropical Storm Debby may be moving slowly, but the stubborn storm is keeping Air Force Reserve hurricane hunters busy. Crews have been flying into the storm since June 22 , when Debby was still an unnamed Gulf of Mexico squall.

Early this morning (June 26), a massive WC-130J aircraft took off from Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., home of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron— the group tasked with monitoring any tropical weather system that threatens land.

The plane, carrying a small crew and crowded with weather instruments, arrived inside Tropical Storm Debby at around 6:30 a.m. CDT and spent five hours crisscrossing the storm, gathering invaluable data and relaying it by satellite to forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

"It was a pretty standard little tropical storm out there — in the Gulf of Mexico it was pretty calm as far as thunderstorms and rain," said meteorologist Douglas Gautrau, the aerial reconnaissance weather officer aboard the morning flight, the first of two flights scheduled for today. [Images: Hurricane Hunters in Action]

Tropical Storm Debby spinning in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico, captured by satellite on Sunday, June 24. (Image credit: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team.)

Inside the gale

However, Gautrau said, the relative calm over the ocean belied the havoc the storm is causing on land. Tropical Storm Debby has pummeled Florida and southern Georgia with flooding rains. Since Saturday (June 23) some areas of northern Florida have received at least 20 inches (51 centimeters) of rain.  

"I guess you can call it a weak tropical storm with a lot of power, if that makes sense," Gautrau said, contrasting the view from the plane with the view from the ground in Florida, which lies many miles to the east of the storm itself.

The plane flew at an altitude of 5,000 feet (1,520 meters), Gautrau said, gathering data on variables from wind speed to temperature, and it staked out the center of the storm — key information for forecasters back in Miami trying to predict the storm's next move.

Gautrau said there are three telltale signs that a plane has reached the very heart of a storm: The wind drops to almost zero, the pressure drops to its lowest point, and the temperature peaks.

Thanks to the plane's instruments, finding the exact center of Debby wasn't a big challenge, Gautrau said, and once they arrived, "there was nothing too interesting to see."

The center of the storm was about 10 miles (16 kilometers) wide, he added.

The view of a storm's center would be far more dramatic — and easier to spot from a plane window — in a stronger hurricane, which typically has a more defined eye, Gautrau explained.

Change of plans

There were indications that a hurricane-hunting flight scheduled for later in the day would be canceled in anticipation that the center of the storm would  soon move over land.

Over the ocean, the hurricane hunters are the eyes and ears for the National Hurricane Center, but once a storm makes landfall, a large network of weather instruments can take over for the planes.

That could mean a break for the hurricane hunters, but not a long one: Tropical Storm Debby, the fourth storm of the 2012 Atlantic season, is forecast to move across Florida and out over the Atlantic Ocean. "So we might pick it up again on Thursday or Friday," Gautrau said.

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Andrea Mustain was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a B.S. degree from Northwestern University and an M.S. degree in broadcast journalism from Columbia University.