Major Dan Darby predicts worst storm season in 60 years

Published 10:27 am Wednesday, June 15, 2005

By By Lee Weyhrich
When it comes to weather Major Dan Darby has probably seen it all.
While the rest of us are on the ground waiting for a storm to hit, Darby is in an airplane flying into the eye of the storm.
Darby is a hurricane hunter with the 53rd Air Force Weather Reconnaissance and a Senior Forecaster with the National Weather Service.
"It (The hurricane hunters) began in 1943 actually, on a bar bet between British and American officers," Darby, a Daphne resident, said at the Chamber Before Hours meeting Tuesday morning at the Community Cup. "An American said he could fly into a hurricane and the British told him it was impossible."
The American's name was Ralph O'Hair. O'Hair was the first to fly into the eye of the storm and helped pave the way for storm chasers of today.
While Darby has had training as a pilot, he generally serves as meteorologist on these missions. Darby was part of the group that made the first pass through Hurricane Ivan in the Atlantic Ocean when the storm was still building and his group followed the storm until it made landfall.
"We have a six-person crew," Darby said. "We have two pilots, an engineer, a navigator, a meteorologist and a crew chief."
Darby talked about the beauty of hurricanes and how from the inside they look like a "stadium" and he talked about the damage a hurricane could do.
"A hurricane is the deadliest, costliest natural disaster," Darby said. "The storm is different at different levels. If you hang around in a condo you might experience a completely different type of storm than you would on the ground."
To get an idea of how powerful the storm is at the various levels, the hurricane hunters have a lot of different instrumentation and have to fly a specific pattern. The pattern flown is a crisscross pattern that resembles an X
"We are just doing the X pattern and collecting data," Darby said. "The data we collect by flying into the storm gives us information about speeds and upper pressure. We use dropsmundes to paint a better picture of the storm."
Dropsmundes are data-collection devices dropped from the plane to give a better reading of the lower levels of the storm.
Hurricane hunters have been flying into storms since the 40s and until technology improves they will probably continue to fly into storms.
"Right now our ability to track storms and build computer models is not that accurate," Darby said. "Satellites are good, but they don't tell how strong the storm is or where it's going."
In fact, computer models may differ substantially from data actually collected by the hurricane hunters. Often the storm forecasters will tell the hurricane hunters that a storm is mild when, in fact, it has already reached hurricane status.
"Andrew was a hard one," Darby said. "That's the one where I lost 3,000 feet (of altitude) in just a couple of seconds. I was pinned to the ceiling of the aircraft while I was still strapped in."
Although hurricane hunting is dangerous no planes have been lost since the 1970's, Darby said.
"All they ever found of that one was a couple of seat cushions," Darby said.
Though the science of predicting the path of the storm is not yet perfected Darby is fairly certain that this storm season will be one of the worst in recorded history.
"This is pretty early in the season to already get hit," Darby said before comparing the trend in recent years to that of the 1940s. "We go through those cycles like in the 1940's where things just keep getting worse. Right now the upper atmosphere conditions are favorable for hurricanes, there is nothing to cool the water and the conditions off the coast of Africa are favorable for hurricanes. With no hard winds in the upper atmosphere the storms can build speed and there are no other factors to slow them down until they hit land."
In an interview with the Atmore Advance Darby also explained the phenomenon of storms following the same path as Hurricane Ivan.
"That's because of that high pressure system on the east coast," Darby said. "It makes storms want to move right up that path."
Right now the hurricane chasers are in the process of upgrading equipment so they can keep those of us on the ground informed.

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