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Gonzo: Boldly Flying Into The Eye Of The Storm

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On the MacDill Air Force base in Tampa, tucked inside Hanger 5, mechanics, meteorologists, engineers and technicians work on a small fleet of planes.

Flight Meteorologist Jack Parrish has been flying into hurricanes for 35 years. He strolls across the hanger to a Gulfstream 4, which is essentially a corporate jet. “You see a zillion of these things taking corporate leaders all over the place. When you step inside you’ll see that it is not a corporate airplane, it’s very much a scientific airplane,” he said.

The hanger is quiet on this day. The two massive hurricane hunters are out – one is in Jacksonville getting new wings, the other is on its first test flight since getting a multi-million dollar upgrade. As we start to climb aboard the Gulfstream, the name of the plane catches my eye – Gonzo, as in Gonzo from the Muppet show.

Why Muppet names on hurricane hunters? As Parrish explains, NOAA would take the two big planes to air shows – kids love them. One plane was a little messier than the other so it got nicknamed Miss Piggy

“So from there the other one got called Kermit. We ended up dealing with the Henson empire and Henson was very happy at the time to lend us some nose art for the three airplanes. So at the moment, it’s just for the big ones, it’s Miss Piggy, Kermit and the one you’re looking at Gonzo with the long nose,” said Parrish.

The extended nose – which give the plane its Muppet name – is thanks to a special weather radar. On Gonzo’s tail is a Doppler radar that takes CAT scans through the storms.

After the tour, as Parrish walks me out of Hanger 5, I ask him what it means to the pilots and meteorologists to brave flying into hurricanes so the rest of us can prepare for a devastating storm …

“That’s really why we’re here. The very cool thing is that a very small group of people have a very huge responsibility on their backs. This information has to get out in a timely matter, it better be accurate.”

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About Catherine Welch

Catherine Welch