INSIDE HURRICANE IKE – Amid the engines’ roar, the Air Force Reserve pilots and navigator worked calmly as their huge plane neared the eyewall of Hurricane Ike.
The gray cloud, looming 50,000 feet into the sky like a colossal concrete barrier was four miles thick, and the Lockheed WC-130J was hurtling into it.
“It’s a big one, and it’s going to get bigger,” said Lt. Col. Mark Carter, 54, a pilot who has chased storms for 31 years. “It’s off land now, and feeding on the warm water down there while it gets itself back together.”
“Down there” is 10,000 feet below, where the swirling dark water and foaming waves of the Gulf of Mexico are only visible intermittently through the clouds.
Carter, and his fellow Hurricane Hunters of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, were finishing a fourth trip across Ike, during a 10-hour, 3,000-mile trek to monitor the storm taking aim at the Texas coast.
The aircraft carved a 210-mile giant “X” pattern through Ike and its eye, just off the western tip of Cuba.
“We’re the only military aircraft that has permission to fly through Cuban airspace,” said public information officer Maj. Chad Gibson. “We share the information we gather with them.”