Science & Technology

Fear vies with excitement on hurricane-hunter flights

By Jorge J. Muñiz Ortiz

San Juan, Aug 26 (EFE).- Puerto Rican meteorologist Amaryllis Cotto says that excitement and motivation to complete the mission outweighs concerns about her safety when she boards one of the 10 United States Air Force C-130 cargo planes especially fitted out as hurricane hunters.

“It’s both the adrenaline and so much going on that your mind doesn’t register the fear,” she told Efe. “There are people who don’t like the feeling, but the adrenaline is greater and it fascinates me, it thrills me.”

The minimum crew complement for a flight comprises two pilots, a navigator, a loadmaster – the Air Force term for the person who takes charge of passengers and cargo – and a meteorologist.

The hurricane hunters operate from several different bases in the southeastern continental US and in the US Virgin Islands.

“When we are entering the (tropical) system, I direct the pilots to the area of interest, seeking certain specific points and zones,” Cotto said from her desk in the US National Weather Service (NWS) Forecast Office for Houston/Galveston, Texas.

Once the plane is in position, capsules deployed into the storm from the cargo hold begin measuring temperature, humidity, wind speed and other variables.

That data offers clues “to know if conditions are favorable for its intensification,” Cotto, a lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve, told Efe.

“Every system is different,” she added. “The winds are at a certain velocity, likewise the direction. We also learn if it is intensifying and we study if the eye wall has some areas that are more dangerous.”

Despite having flown into a Category 5 storm, Cotto said that she gets nervous every year as hurricane season approaches, worried about family members in Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria caused nearly 3,000 deaths in 2017.

“Studying hurricanes has fascinated me since I was little,” she said. “I was always daring and curious.”

“At 11 years old, being in middle school, I decided that that was the goal I wanted,” Cotto said, referring to Puerto Rico’s experience of Hurricane Georges in 1998.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in meteorology from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, obtaining her pilot’s license in the process, and a master of science from Florida International University in Miami.

After six years at the NWS office in San Juan, Cotto was promoted to a more senior position in Texas. EFE jm/dr

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