The Mighty Hercules stands in the foreground, with the Gulfstream IV behind it.

Lee Hutchinson

Every minute of every hour, sophisticated weather satellites are circumnavigating the world, keeping vigil over the planet's atmosphere and streaming data back to the ground. But when it comes to hurricanes and their imminent landfalls, a somewhat lower and slower tool is the most valuable: the venerable WC-130 aircraft. Using a design dating back to 1962, these durable workhorses fly directly into the heart of the storm, where no satellite can see.

The "Mighty Hercules," capable of flying about 18 hours without refueling, has been the mainstay of the US Air Force's "Hurricane Hunters" program since 1999. Just weeks before the beginning of the 2016 Atlantic hurricane season on June 1, the National Hurricane Center and the Air Force invited the press to take a close-up look at one of these planes (along with a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Gulfstream IV) at Scholes Field in Galveston.

This sliver of an island along the northern Texas coast has seen its share of large cyclones. It's close to where the devastating Hurricane Ike made landfall in 2008, and before that, Hurricane Alicia passed directly over the island in 1983. Galveston's most memorable hurricane is the Great Storm of 1900, which caused an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 fatalities and is still the deadliest natural disaster in US history. Fortunately, no storms threatened on the late spring afternoon when Ars visited Scholes Field. Instead, under partly sunny skies, we had a great opportunity to check out the tech used to fly into, and above, the most powerful terrestrial storms known to humans.

Mighty Hercules

The stubby-nosed "Herky Bird" measures 29.3 meters, and with two six-bladed turboprop engines on each side, it has a wingspan of 39.7 meters. As we walked up the ramp into the cargo area we were stepped into a large compartment that during hurricane missions is filled with dropsondes to be released into the atmosphere, along with temporary buoys that fall all the way into the ocean.

These hurricane hunters serve two primary purposes. First, when a storm begins to develop out at sea, the crew must discover whether the system has a "closed circulation"—that is, a counterclockwise rotation in a circular pattern around a central region. Such a rotation, in addition to maximum sustained winds of 39mph (35 knots), is required for the National Hurricane Center to name a storm. These recon missions into "invests" (short for "area of investigation") are flown at an altitude of 500 to 1,500 feet to allow for monitoring of winds and waves. After flying through all four quadrants of the storm to ensure that there is indeed a closed circulation, the mission will then attempt to get a "fix" on the center of circulation.

For established tropical systems, the mission then transforms into one of obtaining real-time data on wind speeds, pressure, and a precise center of circulation. To get most of this data, the WC-130J releases dropsondes at altitudes varying from 5,000 to 38,000 feet. As the dropsonde descends at a rate of 2,500 feet per minute it transmits back measurements on pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed, and direction, and GPS position information to the aircraft in bursts twice each second. This data is then fed into forecast models—both those that predict conditions around the globe as well as well as specialized hurricane models—to provide better initial conditions. The track forecast for hurricanes often improves greatly after an initial reconnaissance flight feeds data back to the computer modelers.

For our tour, however, the cargo compartment was largely empty except for Captain Luke Caulder, who stood by to answer questions. Caulder has piloted the Hercules into about 65 tropical storms and hurricanes. It's not that bad of a flight, he said. "If you've ever flown aboard a small, 20-seat commercial aircraft into really bad weather, then you know exactly what this is like," he explained. The only regions of the storm the crew avoids are hook echoes that indicate tornadic activity within the hurricane.

The best part of the flight is exactly what you think it is—punching through the eyewall and flying into the calm center of a major hurricane, with the storm raging all around. "Yeah, going inside the storm, that's the holy grail," Caulder said. "It's beautiful."

Gulfstream IV

In contrast to the spartan interior of the Mighty Hercules, the Gulfstream IV feels more like a private corporate jet. Sure, there's scientific equipment up and down the aisles, but there are also wide leather seats for passengers. "Oh, it's definitely a nice ride," commented Bill Read, a former director of the National Hurricane Center.

The Gulfstream IV flies at altitudes of 41,000 to 45,000 feet for up to nine hours at a time, releasing dropsondes around the storm. Its goal is not to fly into the hurricane but rather to skirt around the system's periphery and gather data about atmospheric conditions in the vicinity. This data about steering conditions and wind shear near tropical systems helps forecasters better predict the path of the storm as well as potential changes in its intensity.

With conflicting conditions in the Atlantic during the 2016 season, it's not clear whether Mother Nature will produce an active or relatively inactive season. But storms will inevitably come, and whether they threaten the United States, the Caribbean islands, Mexico, or Central America, the Air Force and NOAA will be ready to gather the latest data from inside and above the great cyclones.