Hurricane Beulah required extensive investigation from airplane

Published 8:58 am Friday, November 14, 2014

by Archie Howell

For two days we track Beulah; she sweeps past Martinique. Each day she seems a little more organized, but not a lot stronger. Most of the threat to people is rain. Lots and lots of rain. It’s a massive storm, just not very powerful… yet.

Beulah moves into the very warm waters of the Caribbean Sea, and intensification is expected. Martinique suffers heavy flooding on the south side. Southwestern Puerto Rico suffers the same, although the center of circulation is a hundred miles or more to the south. Today, we’ll investigate and establish a positive position.

We take off in early morning light. Beulah is a lot closer than when we first discovered her and we’ll spend much less time getting on scene. Best guess positioning has the center about 150 miles south west of Puerto Rico. We turn south just after liftoff and cross the south end of Vieques. The island is used by the Navy as a target and bombing range and crossing is not a problem. The range is not in use.

It doesn’t take long for our radar to pick up rain bands in the familiar swirling pattern. We know the storm is heading in a generally westward path. We also know that the worst weather is in the forward right quadrant, relative to its movement. We plan to penetrate from the left rear quadrant.

Our radar shows an eye diameter of about 9 miles. Our minimum is 5 miles. That provides adequate space for maneuvering inside to locate the warmest sea surface temperature and lowest barometric pressure. It also provides space for us to climb up to 10,000 feet inside the eye and exit the storm.

The process of penetration is carefully choreographed. Our path will be between the swirl of rain bands, avoiding most thunderstorms. Our altitude will be between 800 and 1000 feet above the sea surface. That will avoid the strongest vertical currents. Radar and the weather observers will issue headings to keep the surface wind about 10 degrees ahead of the left wing. That will take us into the larger storm mass and provide the quickest transit of the eye wall. About 30 miles from the eye wall we’ll switch from cockpit altitude indicators to the weatherman’s “green worm.” We’ve all done this before and there are no surprises.

Anticipating a cloud wall penetration, we go through the checklist for rough weather. Fuel is allowed to remain in the wing tanks for stabilization, all parachute stowage webbing is checked for tightness, all loose equipment is stowed or lashed down. We don’t want errant objects flying around inside our aircraft. Each crew member will be in their seat with belts fastened.

Other preparations are necessary, also. Engine cowl flaps are opened to a “trail” position allowing heavy rain to flow through the engines instead of backing up in the front, possibly blocking carburetor air intakes. We don’t want the engines to drown out. A slightly higher engine rpm is chosen to give more flexibility for power settings. We will use as few controls as possible for the run. At some point, turbulence will make instrument readings more difficult.

Everything is prepared, and we set about the job at hand. The water surface is clearly visible; it’s whitecaps and surface spray for now. Intermittent rain is followed by torrential downpours. It’s as if someone has dumped a very large bucket of water over our aircraft. Frontal vision has vanished. Out the side window, the water’s surface has become a roiling, boiling, misty green. Wind now blows off the tops of waves and forms an upper level mix of water vapor and wind that obscures the actual sea surface. We switch to the “green worm” for altitude information.

A steady voice report of wind direction and velocity come through our headsets. 80 knots, 85,90 knots. We make the slow left hand turn that will put us into the maelstrom’s center. 100 knots, 105,110 knots, 115, 120 knots. The wind is screaming, engine noise is almost lost into an atmospheric water fall. Aircraft bouncing, we break out into…quiet. We’re inside the eye. It’s eerie in here. A dim glow reveals soft stratus clouds idly drifting. The water surface is perfectly calm, glassy even. Sunlight filtered through high clouds turns everything blue. It’s quite beautiful. The air is oppressively hot.

We circle and crisscross the eye seeking the pressure and temperature data. That done, we make a lazy, climbing circle to 10,000 feet and head home. Our mission is done.

Beulah continues to grow and slams into the U.S. mainland in south Texas. It is the most damaging hurricane to ever hit Texas and northern Mexico. The name Beulah is retired and will never again be used for an Atlantic hurricane.

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