After pounding through 183 hurricanes over the past 38 years, two Lockheed WP-3 Orion turboprops are almost ready for the junk heap.
Yet new hurricane hunters could cost a prohibitive $300 million.
Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has another option: Revive both planes with new wings, engines and avionics at a cost of about $15 million per aircraft. That should keep them flying through 2030, or for more than 50 years.
While not that unusual if a plane is well-maintained, it is a testament to how rugged the WP-3 is, considering it regularly smashes into storms.
“The WP-3 Orion is big, has a lot of power and will fly through hurricanes without fear of crashing,” said Frank Marks, director of NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division in Miami.
Because the two Orions have been subjected to severe turbulence, “we’ve had a number of incidents over the years,” said Cmdr. Michael Silah, chief of staff of the NOAA division which oversees the planes.
Perhaps the most high profile was when one of the turboprops flew into the eyewall of Hurricane Hugo in September 1989 and two of its four engines stopped running.
“The P-3 is able to fly on two engines, so the crew was able to regroup inside the storm,” said Silah, a veteran hurricane hunter pilot. “When you fly into a hurricane, you’re flying into a potentially high-risk environment.”
After Sandy assaulted the U.S. East Coast and swamped portions of South Florida’s shoreline in October 2012, Congress allotted $309.7 million to improve tropical forecasts and make communities more storm ready.
Part of that money will refurbish the planes over the next three years. It also will fund additional hours of flight time this storm season, NOAA officials said.
“It’s an opportunity for us to be very aggressive this year, flying the planes and sampling storms,” Marks said.
This will be the last hurricane season until 2017 that the two aircraft will fly together, as each gets revamped.
The WP-3s are equipped with a barrage of weather instruments and sophisticated radar systems that provide real-time data to help the hurricane center better estimate a storm’s track and strength.
This season, the two planes will help test new technological tools. They’ll work in concert with two small waterborne drones stationed near Puerto Rico to glean temperature and pressure readings from any approaching storms, said NOAA spokeswoman Erica Rule.
“We place that data into models to see if we’re better able to improve intensity forecasts,” she said.
The two 67-ton WP-3s are generally staffed with 18 to 20 crew members, including pilots and scientists. The planes commonly fly for eight to 10 hours per mission, penetrating the core of storms several times. They also release devices to capture data on wind speeds, pressure and temperature.
Usually they are accompanied by NOAA’s high-flying G-4 jet, which flies around the upper fringes of storms to get a better read on steering currents.
A major benefit of installing new Rolls-Royce engines on the planes will be about a 10 percent increase in fuel efficiency, which should allow the WP-3s to fly an additional 60 to 90 minutes, Silah said.
“The additional data we’ll get is absolutely critical,” he said.
Silah noted the WP-3 is the perfect platform for NOAA’s research into tropical systems.
“These are the most comprehensive flying weather stations in the world, and there’s nothing better suited for the mission,” he said. “Sometimes the old technology is better.”