Satellites watched Bertha march across the Atlantic, from its birthplace off the
west coast of Africa. It never seems to fail: when there's a long holiday weekend,
duty will call. This 4th of July holiday was no exception.
When Bertha became a threat to the Lesser Antilles, the
Hurricane Hunters scrambled several aircraft, four crews, and a two teams of support
personnel to the region. We'll follow the adventures of the first crew, Teal 06, to give you
an idea of what an around-the-clock operation is like:
Teal 06 landed after noon on the 6th of July at their forward operating location in
the Caribbean. No time to enjoy the sights: they went into immediate crew rest, and
were awakened shortly after midnight on July 7th, to pack their bags again, and evacuate
to Florida--by way of Tropical Storm Bertha. The next crew would do the same, while
the others headed directly to Florida to begin flying the storm from there as Bertha
closed in on the Antilles.
Rich, the weather officer, was back in the saddle again, after nearly a ten-year
absence from hurricane hunting. A lot had changed--in the past, he'd take an
observation manually, every four minutes: look at all the gauges, punch the numbers
into a calculator, and write the values in code. At the same time, he'd keep
an eye on the radar, watch the airspeed and groundspeed indicators fluctuate, make
changes to the aircraft heading, run to the window downstairs and read surface winds,
and then take another observation. Now, with the relatively new Improved Weather
Reconnaissance System, the computers took and coded an observation every 30 seconds,
and went automatically through a satellite link to the Hurricane Center. He now had plenty
of time to analyze the information. He declared, "If I can eat my lunch on an inbound leg, I'll eat my hat!"
After flying a large pattern through all sides of the storm, and passing through the
center three times, Teal 06 began the long, four hour flight to Florida. The entire
mission lasted 12.3 hours. They went into immediate crew rest, once again.
The next crew found Bertha strengthening into a hurricane. Bertha later crossed
through the islands, with hurricane conditions experienced from
the U.S. Virgin Islands southward to Antigua. She damaged almost 2500 homes on St. Thomas
and St. John.
Just 12 hours after landing, Teal 06 was
awakened on the morning of July 8th to fly the fourth mission into Bertha, now a
full-fledged hurricane. At the exact moment they were crossing the
eye for the second time, they got an urgent message from the Coast Guard, reporting
that a ship was in distress, with 42 to 48 people, some already in the water. They
immediately diverted to the last known coordinates of the ship, and searched the area
until a Coast Guard helicopter arrived on the scene. They had just enough fuel left
to finish the mission with one last pass through the eye, and logged 12.3 total hours.
The around-the-clock flights continued. At 3 a.m. on July 9th, Bertha was declared
a Category 3 major hurricane, when the Hunters found 122 knots in the northeast section of
On July 10th, Bertha was really winding up, moving through the Bahamas towards Florida.
The radar picture Teal 06 saw was really interesting now,
with a rare concentric eye: a 15-mile ring inside a 40-mile ring. The sea-level pressure
dropped from 969 to 954 millibars during this flight, and the Hurricane Center asked for additional fixes to keep
tabs on this powerful storm making a feint towards the Coast--it was expected to turn
parallel to Florida soon, and they wanted to know as soon as that started! The fixes were made at
1454Z, 1641Z, 1815Z, and 1931Z, and while continuing the Alpha-pattern for another fix,
one of the engines began to develop a problem. The crew immediately turned towards
shore, and made one last pass through the eye on their way home. They ended up
shutting down the engine to prevent damage, declared an emergency, and landed safely
in Florida. Another day at the office for the Hurricane Hunters.
As Bertha began a gradual turn over the Bahamas, the islands were spared the brunt
of the hurricane's force, since the worst conditions remained to the northeast of the
There was a slight break in the flow as our NOAA bretheren flew a mission. This
meant a few extra hours of "ground time", and a welcome respite in the rotation..
Our crew was back in the fray on the night of July 11th, and was off the deck at
10:45 p.m. EDT. The storm was only an hour and fifteen minutes away, off the coast of
had come up to 991 millibars, and the radar no longer showed any typical eye bands.
Rich reported, "surface center skewed to west-northwest from the flight-level center."
When a storm is no longer "vertically stacked", it may be a sign there is some wind
shear acting on the storm, and it will weaken unless it moves into a more favorable
After the first fix, they decided it was safe enough to drop down from 10,000 feet
(700 millibars) to the next standard level at 5000 feet (850 millibars). This would
give the forecasters a better idea what was happening closer to the surface. On this
flight, Teal 06 hosted television crews from Indiana and Germany.
They followed the storm until they were forced by aircraft limitations to return home, and
the next crew was ready to take their place. It was another four-fix mission.
An estimated 750,000 people evacuated North and South Carolina.
Two more missions were flown on Bertha, the last on July 13th when Bertha came ashore
near Wilmington, North Carolina. The Hurricane Hunters recorded some strengthening of
the storm prior to landfall.
Storm surges were estimated from 1 to 6 feet, from Florida through New England. 5000
homes were damaged, mostly from storm surge. Seven tornadoes were spawned by the storm
after it came ashore, five in Virginia alone. In that week, Teal 06 logged six
missions and nearly 50 flying hours.