News 5 Flies With Hurricane Hunters as Irma Makes Ill-Fated Turn to Florida

ATLANTIC OCEAN (WKRG) – The Hurricane Hunters of the U.S. Air Force Reserve at Keesler Air Force Base continue flying into the heart of Hurricane Irma to gather crucial scientific data before the storm makes landfall in Florida.

News 5’s Cameron Edgeworth and Clinton Bougeois listen to a pre-flight briefing.

News 5’s Cameron Edgeworth, J.B. Biunno and photojournalist Clinton Bougeois accompanied the Hurricane Hunters on their Saturday morning flight, making four passes into the eye of Irma as the storm crept closer to United States.

According to the Hurricane Hunters, their morning flight provided the vital measurements that downgraded Irma to a Category 3 Hurricane, and also pushed the track westward towards Tampa.

In the eye of Irma was a scattered flurry of stray clouds, a sign that the storm’s center has become disorganized over the Cuban coast, the Hurricane Hunters said.

While in the eye of the storm during their third pass, the Hurricane Hunters took note of the gradual northerly turn away from Cuba’s coast. As forecasters have predicted over the last several days, Irma finally pivoted towards Florida, albeit slowly.

“It’s gradual, but she’s turning towards Tampa,” said Lt. Colonel Ryan Cesulka, the aircraft’s commander. “We were hoping for that stadium effect in [Irma’s eye], but it just didn’t happen today.”

Cesulka said to the crews surprise – and fortunately for News 5 – the flight into Irma was shockingly smooth.

The cockpit of the Hurricane Hunters flight into Irma.

“That was nothing,” said Cesulka on the lack of turbulence. “That was like flying on Delta. Harvey was much rougher.”

However upon landing back on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the pilots made a startling discovery. The plane’s nose was struck by lightning mid-flight, unbeknownst to the crew. Markings and chipped paint were visible on the front of the aircraft, along with hail damage on the propellers.

Engineers say metal channels along the nose – designed for this very purpose – carried the lightning’s electricity directly into the hull, where the energy was absorbed without incident. No one aboard was harmed, or even knew the plane had been struck by lightning.

In the plane’s cabin, Lt. Colonel Kaitlyn Woods and the loadmasters were busy studying Irma. They gathered scientific data to help national forecasters determine where Irma might make landfall on the Florida coast.

“[Irma] has weakened, but still has the potential to be devastating,” said Woods, who served as the flight’s Aerial Recognizance Weather Master. “I think we really helped the forecasters today. Our data helped determine Irma was heading more westward.”

The Hurricane Hunters will continue flying into Irma over the next 36 hours before the storm makes landfall in Florida. Check out the WKRG Facebook page for pictures, video and 360-degree reports from inside the aircraft.

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