O’Dark Thirty

By Greg Bast, NOAA Aircraft Production Controller/WP-3D Flight Engineer

O’Dark-Thirty.  O’Dark-thirty is aviator speak for those bleak, lonely hours between midnight and 05:00 am.  Those hours when your brain is telling your body to rest, relax, sleep.


0030 – Walking out on the parking ramp, I see the huge, dark creature bathed in shimmering incandescent lights and sharp black shadows.  Ponderous, yet, somehow sleek and beautiful.  Quiet, sleeping, but soon to be awakened.   First, my eyes, guided by my flashlight, inspect every inch of the creature’s smooth aluminum skin, looking for anything out of the ordinary.  Touching, probing, and grasping the creature’s inner workings, I search; making certain everything is in its proper place.  Touching a few switches, the creature wakes.  It rumbles and groans, screams and shivers.  Others join me, as we tend to the creature and ready it for the coming flight.  In a few short hours we will embark within the creature to lumber down a long, light-lined stretch of concrete and claw our way into the warm, black void of the night sky. We will go in search of a monster.  A malevolent, churning, angry beast.


For over forty years NOAA’s flight engineers and maintenance technicians have been preflighting, troubleshooting, repairing, fueling and postflighting NOAA aircraft at O’dark thirty in the morning.  For twenty-six of those years, these flight engineers and maintenance technicians have been responsible for the care and feeding of the two NOAA Lockheed WP-3D Orions. These four-engine turboprop aircraft have a combined total of over 1100 penetrations into the eyes of hurricanes.  The two aircraft have in excess of 16,000 mishap free hours of combined flight time, 80 percent of which has been flown in some sort of severe weather.   For each hour of flight, an average of 7 man-hours is spent inspecting, troubleshooting and maintaining these venerable machines.


0345 – My right hand pushes the power levers forward, giving fuel to the engines and blade angle to the propellers.  The creature surges forward, roaring and vibrating at the release of its awesome power.  Slowly at first, the airspeed indicator comes off the peg.  The warm, moist night air is pulled through the propellers to swirl in grayish white eddies over the creature’s wings as it gathers speed.  Thundering down the concrete stripe, my eyes scan the myriad display of gauges and lights looking for any abnormality.  Watching, listening, smelling, my whole body feeling for any anomaly.  Airborne!  The feeling is always the same.  Exhilaration!  Freedom!  The creature is now where it belongs.  135,000 pounds of metal, wires, glass, hoses, pipes, fuel, scientific equipment and people, temporarily free of the confines of earth and gravity.  Turning away from home and land, we head out over the dark, moonlit waters of the vast ocean.  We are in search of the largest, most awe-inspiring and dangerous monster on the face of the planet – a full-blown tropical hurricane.


The four NOAA WP-3D flight engineers and two aircraft maintenance technicians have almost 150 years of combined experience in the aircraft industry.  The majority of their experience has been flying and maintaining either P-3 or C-130 aircraft.  Each holds a FAA Airframe and Powerplant certificate, some with Inspection Authorization.  Each flight engineer also holds a FAA Flight Engineers certificate with turboprop rating.  They are exceptional people.  Highly motivated, technically skilled, and extremely versatile individuals.  Each has spent many thousands of hours inspecting, troubleshooting, removing and replacing, repairing, and modifying WP-3D engines, systems, and accessories.  They have done it day and night, in any environment that you could possibly imagine. 


0615 – The past two and one half hours have gone by uneventfully, almost stoically.  The technicians and scientists have been checking, rechecking, and tweaking the radars and data gathering equipment.  The pilots, flight director, navigator and chief scientist have been discussing storm entry procedures and track patterns through the storm.  Me? I’ve spent the time listening and watching.  Monitoring the creature’s heartbeat, blood flow and nervous systems, dozing occasionally in the warm red glow of the flight station, but never asleep.  Always aware of the creature’s sounds, vibrations and smells, all of my senses attuned to any changes.  A frenzy of activity begins as we enter the outer environment of the hurricane.  Loose equipment is stowed and tied down, data systems are up and running, radar systems are up and running.  I take one last walk down the equipment-lined tube of the cabin to insure everything is secure before the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign is illuminated.  The anticipation inside the creature is almost palpable, for it is time to enter the realm of the monster.


There is a kind of brotherly closeness among the P-3 flight engineers and maintenance technicians.  They’ve all been there, done that, and have the t-shirts to prove it.  Working individually and as a team, they insure that both of the WP-3Ds are two of the safest and most well maintained aircraft in the world.  Their responsibility is to insure that the flight crews and scientists have the very finest platforms available to them anytime, anywhere.  Taking care of the WP-3Ds is physically grueling, at times mentally frustrating, and always demanding.  There is no room for complacency or cutting corners.  Maintaining and flying these aircraft is not just a job.  It is a love affair.  A love affair with complex machinery and the satisfaction that comes from watching that machinery take flight.  It is a love affair with the unusual, the different, and the diverse.  A love affair with extending one’s self and testing your abilities beyond what you thought you were capable of.  Knowing that the end product of what you do can have an affect on millions of people all over the country. 


0655 – The past 40 minutes have been busy.  At 15,000 feet the hurricane continually buffets the creature and coats the creature’s wings and tail with ice.  My hands and arms move from the power levers in front of me to the overhead panel and back a hundred times.  Maintain airspeed, remove the ice, maintain cabin pressure and heat, check pressures and oil temperatures, the cycle is endless.  Rolling side to side and up and down, the shoulder harnesses dig into my collarbones and the lap belt chaffs against my hips.  A ball of static electricity begins to grow on the long barber-poled probe under the copilot’s windshield.  A bit of St. Elmo’s fire dances happily between windshield frames and across the glass.  Purple at first, the frenzied ball of static electricity increases in size, turning blue, then green, orange and yellow.  Bang!  Flash!  Discharge.  The fiery ball discharges down the right side of the creature sending a wave of heat through the windshield and making hairs stand on end.  The hurricane now unleashes all of its fury.  We are in the eyewall.  The creature lurches and bucks twice, three times, four.  Side to side, up, down and sideways again.  The airspeed drops below 190 knots, power levers forward, airspeed increases above 230 knots, power levers back.  The din of rain and soft hail increases in intensity, sounding like a million ping-pong balls ricocheting off every surface of the creature.  The radar screen on the pilot’s right front instrument panel shows a red band with streaks of magenta.  More turbulence.  Up, down, side-to-side, the creature claws its way through the tempest.  A last surge of power and we burst into the gleaming sunlight of a multi-hued sunrise and a clear crystal blue sky.  The eye of the hurricane.  Calm, serene, magnificent.  Towering and majestic gray and white clouds completely surround the creature and we are reminded once again of how insignificant we are in the whole of God’s creation.  Left turn, more left, back right a little, hold course, now left, left again, call it.”  The “zero wind” center of the monster is marked.  The flight director hit it right on the nose.  A few more minutes to admire the majesty of this beautiful, yet malevolent entity then back to the business at hand; getting out the other side.


All of the data gathered during these penetrations is fed into the computers aboard the aircraft and stored on DAT tapes for further evaluation after the flight.  Data and radar pictures are also sent in “real time” via satellite to the hurricane center in Miami, Florida.  Along with the all of the onboard sensors and probes, GPS dropwindsondes have been dropped at specific points along the penetration path and in the outer environs of the storm.  These “sondes” send back data about wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, temperature, and humidity.  With all of this data being gathered between the two NOAA WP-3Ds, the NOAA Gulfstream GIV-SP high altitude research aircraft and the Air Force’s WC-130 aircraft, hurricane forecasting is becoming more of an exact science.  In the past seven years the hurricane landfall error forecast has dropped from 450 miles of coastline to approximately 150 miles of coastline.  At a cost in excess of $1 million dollars per mile to activate emergency services, the intangible savings to the American public has been substantial.  We will never be able to prevent hurricanes from making landfall along the coastlines of the United States.  But, with new technology and increased databases, improved forecasting will give America’s coastline residents the time needed to safely evacuate the predicted landfall area, minimizing lose of life and property.


1230 – Final approach.  The pilot deftly works the flight controls and the creature settles gently back to earth.  We have made eight penetrations into the eye of the hurricane today, removed a ton of ice, been struck by lightning once and had three unnerving static discharges.  The #2 engine has a minor turbine inlet temperature problem, the 1A hydraulic pump has been intermittent, and the creatures skin is probably pockmarked with burn holes from the electrical discharges.  The crew chief guides the creature to its parking spot and I shut down the engines.  The postflight frenzy of technicians and scientists finally ceases and I shut down the auxiliary power unit.  Silence.  The creature is once again asleep.


1450 – We have taken care of the creature’s needs.  Once again I have inspected the creature, searching for anything that is not normal.  Along with the crew chief, we have taken care of the creature’s problems and tested each repair to insure that all is in proper order.  One last, backward glance at the creature as we walk tiredly off the parking ramp.  The creature appears ungainly, yet so grand and elegant in the afternoon sun.  “Sleep well my friend.  We will be back soon enough to awaken you once again.” 


Awaken you at O’dark-thirty in the morning…