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75th Anniversary of First Flight into the Eye of a Hurricane

[Gulfstream IV-SP Hurricane Hunter aircraft. From NOAA]


On July 27, 1943, U.S. Army Air Forces Lt. Col. Joseph B. Duckworth made the first deliberate flight into the eye of a hurricane.  This historic event inaugurated the era of aircraft reconnaissance into tropical cyclones which greatly enhanced our understanding and forecasting of these storms.

Duckworth was an Eastern Air Lines pilot prior to World War II and  well-versed in flying on instruments only.  Ten years prior, he flew his aircraft through a hurricane threatening Washington, DC.  Since many military aircraft prior to the War lacked the instrumentation necessary for night or bad-weather flying, Army Air Forces instructors lacked the skills necessary to teach instrumentation flying to air cadets.  When reservist Duckworth was called up in 1940, he was assigned the task of teaching these students instrument flying and wrote many of the  instructional manuals on the subject.

[Lt. Col. Joseph Duckworth is shown at his desk at Columbus Army Air Field in 1942. From Columbus and Starkville Dispatch via NOAA]

By 1943 he was commanding the instrument training facility at Bryan Army Air Field in Texas, teaching mostly British pilots how to fly on instruments. (It was Royal Air Force policy to fly their bombing missions at night to reduce casualties.)  On July 27th, all flying classes were cancelled when a hurricane unexpectedly hit Galveston to the southeast of Bryan.  Some say it was on a bet, but it may have just been on a whim, but with his day free, Duckworth decided to fly his AT-6 “Texan” trainer aircraft into the storm.  With navigator Lt. Ralph O’Hair along, he  encountered moderate turbulence but succeeded in finding the eye to the west of Houston.  Upon his return to Bryan Field, the base meteorologist Lt. William Jones-Burdick insisted on being taken up into the storm.  So Duckworth headed out again while the weather officer rode in the back seat jotting down notes.

[Weather analysis on July 27, 1943 of “Surprise” Hurricane. From NOAA]

War censorship came into question during the hurricane, as all ship reports were silenced during World War II. All advisories had to be cleared through the Weather Bureau in New Orleans. No forecast information was disseminated to the public and the news media was heavily censored before and after the storm. This was due to concerns of knowledge to Axis powers of the loss of war production materials.

[Wind damage near Galveston, TX from 1943 “Surprise” Hurricane. From NOAA]

Wind gusts of near 130 mph were reported near Houston and Galveston. Flooding rains affected the Texas and Louisiana coastlines.  19 fatalities were reported, with damage estimates of $17 million (1943 dollars). Due to the loss of life in this storm, the U.S. government has never censored hurricane advisories again.

[Street flooding in Galveston, TX. From NOAA]

Although Duckworth was in trouble for taking the unauthorized flights, his superiors finally decided it was better to give him a medal rather than a reprimand.  His mission proved it was possible to fly an aircraft into a hurricane and even locate its eye.  As a result, there were several other flights into tropical cyclones later that year, including a flight into a hurricane east of Miami in mid-August in which real-time observations  were relayed to the Miami Hurricane Warning Center to inform their warnings for the first time. Duckworth’s contributions to pilot instrument training are honored by the Colonel Joseph B. Duckworth Award, an annual prize for the best unit in flight instruction.

Edited for WeatherNation by Meteorologist Mace Michaels

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