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Hurricane Hunter

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Lt. Col. Jeff Ragusa of Keesler AFB in Biloxi, displays a dropsonde to students. The device gathers storm data while falling from the W-C130 hurricane-hunting planes during fly-throughs. (Credit:  Catherine Threlkeld) Lt. Col. Jeff Ragusa of Keesler AFB in Biloxi, displays a dropsonde to students. The device gathers storm data while falling from the W-C130 hurricane-hunting planes during fly-throughs. (Credit: Catherine Threlkeld)

By Ben Wallace | LSU Student

He flies a plane with no flight attendants, no TVs and no complimentary snacks.

But since Baton Rouge native Lt. Col. Jeff Ragusa's mission is flying directly into the eye of a hurricane as many times as possible before his fuel gauge ticks near "empty," there are plenty of barf bags.

It can take as long as 14 hours to drain up to 30 tons of jet fuel, and as a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force Reserve's Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, better known as the "Hurricane Hunters," the LSU alumnae has flown missions so long that he needed a mid-flight nap.

"I strung a hammock across the back [of the airplane] during Isaac," Ragusa confessed during a recent presentation at the Manship School of Mass Communication at LSU, his alma mater. "And if you're the type of person who can take a nap while an airplane is flying through a hurricane, we've got a spot for you."

During hurricanes that threaten any landmass near the U.S., five-member crews take off from Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss. on one of 10 $70-million, 100-foot WC-130 J airplanes built specifically for hurricane hunting.

"People think we'll fly into anything, but we're really scared of tornadoes," Ragusa said. "We don't know what's going to happen if we fly into one, and we don't want to find out."

In hurricanes, the wind moves like a stream of water in one lateral direction, allowing Ragusa to fly relatively safely into the wind while still moving towards the storm's eye in a process called "crabbing," he said. In tornadoes, strong updrafts, or possibly downdrafts, could toss the plane vertically, bouncing it up and down in unpredictably tumultuous motions.

"The stronger the storm, no big deal to an airplane. It's the up and down movements that they have to worry about."

The WC-130J's are 10 of 12 airplanes worldwide, the only other two owned by NOAA, allowed to fly directly into hurricanes, he said.

"Everything red [on the radar] is really, really bad—everything in that light purple is really, really, really bad," the 49-year old husband and father of three described while pointing to a screen-shot of a hurricane on radar. "Every other airplane in the world, by regulations, has to stay 10 or 20 miles away from red on their radar."

Although Hurricane Katrina took nearly 2,000 lives and racked up more than $100 billion in damages across the Gulf coast, it wasn't all that bad for lying, he says. And without understating the tragic disaster of Katrina, Ragusa said Isaac was probably worse, in purely flying circumstances.

Only one hurricane hunting plane has been lost, and that was back in the 1970s, said Ragusa, noting that no one knows what happened.

The worst weather he has flown through, however, was category 5 Hurricane Dean back in 2007 when it was about to make landfall on the Yucatan peninsula. "We bumped around so much you couldn't discern your flight instruments. You're kind of along for the ride."

He says his wife, Susan, though, usually doesn't worry.

GPS data streams the plane's location on an online map every few minutes, to the point that she can usually figure out how many hours it'll be before her husband comes home for supper, Ragusa said.

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