Sunny Jacksonville

Published 10:08 am Friday, August 15, 2014

by James D. Howell

All the temporary and more permanent personal goods storage vaults have been emptied and their contents delivered to our house in Jacksonville, Florida. Jacksonville has the dubious distinction of severely overbuilding the housing market. Hundreds of brand new houses sit unoccupied, some for a year or more. We have no difficulty finding something suitable in a neighborhood of our liking. We move in right next door to our friends from Pensacola.

The bright sun shines almost daily in this Florida climate. My duties have become intimately associated with that phenomenon. The tropics spawn hurricanes; hurricanes are fed by heat energy from tropical waters warmed by the sun. It’s a natural cycle. If the movement of tropical cyclones (hurricanes) can be forecast, precautionary measures can be taken to preserve lives and property.

That’s my new job. My squadron, working with the National Hurricane Center in Miami, will attempt to locate, penetrate, track, and collect data in order to, hopefully, more accurately predict tropical cyclone movement. There’s a limited amount of satellite data, a more limited amount of ocean buoy data, and some data sent from aircraft that transit the Atlantic Ocean within the region of cyclone birth. The most accurate is data collected by aircraft sent specifically to certain areas to personally observe and report on current conditions.

My new squadron, VW-4, has been in the hurricane hunting business since 1945, with several aircraft types and squadron designations. The latest has been around since the mid 1950s, with the Super Constellation replacing the P2V Neptune in 1958. The larger, more powerful radar allows a significant increase in area coverage for an investigatory flight. The vertical radar is less useful.

On average, hurricanes are not very tall, most of the clouds top out at around 8-10,000 feet. Associated thunderstorms stick to the tropical model, with torrential rains, topping out around 18-20,000 feet. The thunderstorms are distributed along atmospheric pressure patterns and are not difficult to avoid at altitude. From a high altitude perspective, hurricanes look like a doughnut, with clouds extending outward in a spiral pattern.

Our crews include meteorologists; they handle the technical task of measuring surface wind direction and speed, sea state, sea surface temperature, and barometric pressure. Specialized equipment includes an instrument that accurately measures height above the surface (altitude) in a non atmospheric pressure environment.

This gadget is especially important because our storm penetrations will be between 800 and 1000 feet off the water, where barometric pressure is changing rapidly and is not reliable. At a certain point, the primary cockpit instruments for altitude are ignored in favor of the specialist’s readings. We affectionately call it “the green worm,” because of its display. How it works is something of a mystery to me; I just know it is reliable.

I learn about hurricanes. Each tropical cyclone has three distinct “eyes.” Cloud eyes show up on radar screens with the menacing eye wall. There’s a place within the cloud eye that has a higher sea surface temperature than any other; that’s the temperature eye. Somewhere within the cloud eye, also, is a place with the lowest barometric pressure — the pressure eye.

It’s our job to penetrate the eye wall and locate each of these “eyes;” we plot their positions and the relationship between them. Hopefully this data can be assembled and analyzed to provide a better forecast for hurricane movement. All information is fed to the National Hurricane Center in Miami via CW radio.

My arrival in Jacksonville is in May, just before the start of official hurricane season. Each year my squadron establishes a detachment at Roosevelt Roads NAS, Puerto Rico, beginning June 1st and continuing until about Nov. 1st, or when someone deems that hurricane season is over. I will take my turn as Officer in Charge of that detachment with others. The first plane will depart Jacksonville when a suspicious depression turns up on a satellite map or weather prognosis chart.

Routinely, one aircraft and crew will be detached to begin the search. If something is discovered, a second and third aircraft will join the other at “Rosy” Roads to provide constant surveillance. Heavy maintenance and other routine checks are done during off season winter months. That insures maximum availability for our mission.

Another major change in fleet operations has occurred. Non-pilot Naval Flight Officers now do routine navigation and other duties. I will be a pilot crewmember only. It’s a pleasant change.

Our hangar and ramp areas are the same ones I used when I flew seaplanes to Jacksonville a few years ago. The familiar St. Johns River flows alongside our ramp. Although I now use the concrete runways, my eyes often stray into the river in memory.

It’s good to be warm in the sun.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at