Hurricane Hunter talks lightning strikes and freezing level

Posted on July 10, 2014 

For much of Wednesday, myself and several other reporters were honorary Hurricane Hunters. The "world famous" airmen of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron participated in a joint mission Wednesday with the Mississippi Air National Guard and the Mississippi Army National Guard -- and we were along to document the exercise.

Prior to going up in the C-130J, the Hunters dropped some knowledge about the various weather environments they may experience while investigating a storm. (Editor's note: The word "interesting" could probably be exchanged with "dangerous" if a civilian was talking.

GOING UP: The top of the hurricane is about 50,000 to 60,000 feet. A commercial airliner flying cross country travels about 40,000 feet. The C-130J is built to fly about 30,000 feet. Most airplanes begin preparing to land about 1,500 feet. The Hunters, when they first go out to investigate a storm before it's a hurricane, fly about 500 feet.

"As the storm becomes more interesting, we'll fly higher and higher to give us more of a safety margin," said Lt. Col. Jeff Ragusa. "We never ever go above 10,000 feet." 

FREEZING LEVEL: He said 10,000 feet is about the max Hurricane Hunters will fly because of "some more interesting things."

"All big airplanes are equipped with anti-ice equipment, as is our airplane, but because of the amount of water in this storm environment would eventually overcome our anti-ice equipment."

He said the freezing level in a summer storm environment is about 14,000 feet.

ELECTRIC FLIGHT: Ragusa also said you're more likely to be hit by lightning if you're within 2,000 feet of the freezing level.

He said they do occasionally get struck by lightning, but the aircraft are equipped with static wicks which are designed to help dissipate electricity. Every lightning strike, however, can leave a mark. 

"(Static wicks) can not dissipate it at the rate you gain (electricity) when you get hit by lightning," Ragusa said. "Every lightning strike will leave an entry wound and an exit wound on the airplane. You hope for nothing more than a little charred paint."

IF IT'S IMPORTANT, WE HAVE MORE THAN ONE: Ragusa said a direct strike can possibly affect some of the electrical equipment on the aircraft, but "I always make this very clear whenever I talk to people: If there's something important on an airplane, we don't just have one."

He said the aircraft can fly "just fine" without any electricity.

"It's not comfortable, you don't want to do it and you're going to be heading to land, but it will fly without electricity," Ragusa said, adding that with a single electrical generator they can power the aircraft all day long. 

"I have five electric generators aboard my aircraft," he said.

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