This remarkable account of a remarkable flight first appeared in the January, 1945, issue of Air Facts. Hurricanes haven’t changed a bit but hurricane research flying sure has. –Ed.
By Robert N. Buck
The airplane we use is a B-17, but it’s a lot different from most 17s. The turrets are off and so are the guns and the armament, and instead there is a lot of test equipment that we don’t talk about out loud. But the basic job to be done results in flying weather. By that I mean we sit around and cuss the days of clear and unlimited, and gleefully rub our hands when snow, rain, thunderstorms, or anything else begins to show up on the weather map.
Oh, I’ll admit I wasn’t so very gleeful at first at the idea, but it’s like hypnosis and you become intrigued and suddenly find you like bad weather! It’s an airline crew—I fly it and Garth Sharp is the co-pilot. Then there’s Barney Dowd, the flight engineer-crew chief, who keeps those four big fans going around so sweetly and so constantly. Barney is the kind of a guy you’d always want taking care of your airplane. And his assistant, Bill Foley, knows how to work hard and do the job well and how to play too. Then back in the radio room is Phil Couch; he’s an Army employee and a civilian—a radio engineer. He twists the gadgets and takes the notes and always wishes, even when we’re holding on for life itself, that the weather was just a little worse than it is.
The first idea that some weather was getting ready to make trouble came through the pages of the Kansas City Star, when the front page carried a “Hurricane Threatens Cuba” item. I called the weatherman.
“What’s the deal on the Cuban hurricane?” I asked him.
“A little early to tell, may be near Florida tomorrow.”
I hung up and decided to let it simmer a little, but I found I was simmering more than the hurricane. I went to the field and studied the weather maps carefully—tomorrow it should be getting into Florida without much doubt. I guessed we’d better go down there and have a look. I called Barney.
“Let’s gas it up—it looks like somewhere in Florida. Take off about nine a.m.—don’t know where we’ll land.” “Okay—it’s done. I’ll tell Foley,” and Barney was on his way. I called the others.
Perhaps it does sound indefinite, but that’s the way it goes. Until we get in the air and in the weather we never know where we’ll land. We just get lots of gasoline, a few sandwiches, and get going.
I checked the weather again late that night and looked at the round isobar packed little system down in the Gulf. It was hard to think of all the hell it was raising. It was nice in Kansas City, clear and cool. I went to bed, but I admit that just before dropping off I wondered what all those isobars and that tight packed storm had in store for us; it, way down there in the Gulf, and me in a soft bed in Kansas City. Well, a B-17 would get us together—and fast.
It was close to nine a.m. when fifty-two thousand pounds and forty-eight hundred horsepower headed southeast and began looping off the miles. The sky was blue and the sun gay. The co-pilot flew it while I read the last of the morning paper. With that finished, I checked the compass deviation by the Astro Compass, thinking it’d be a good idea before the clouds came in and covered the sun. I strolled back and talked to Phil, our radio engineer.
“How’s it look?” he said. “Think there’ll be any hot stuff in it?” Hot stuff to Phil is any weather that will raise complete hell with the radio.
“Don’t know yet. There ought to be, but remember how disappointing that September hurricane was. Just have to wait and see.”
“Sure hope it’s hot,” was his only comment.
Barney was in the back getting his paper work up to date, and Foley was tying down some loose items but he stopped and joined Barney and me.
“How’s he look?” Barney asked. He was talking about the weather.
“Oh, hard to tell; it’s raising hell. The way it looks now I think we’ll hit it around Jacksonville, go through it and go on to Miami. Miami ought to be open by then.”
“Good deal,” they both exclaimed.
“I think I’ll go in low and then try to climb up through it to see what it looks like from bottom to top. Guess we’ll take the pipe for a few hours.”
“Oh, that damned oxygen” said Foley, and we all agreed, because we hate the tight-fitting oxygen masks.
“Think it’ll be very rough?” Barney asked.
“Maybe down low, but I don’t think it’ll be bad when we get a little altitude. We’d better wear our Mae Wests—we may get out over the water.”
I wandered back up front.
It was along about Muscle Shoals when I noticed that a high sheet of cirro stratus was sending out the storm’s first warnings. Phil called me on the interphone.
“Say, do you want to check that positive altimeter?”
“Yes, sure do.”
“Is there any water around we could fly over—low?”
“Sure. We’re over a big lake now; I’ll start down.”
“Okay, I’ll be up front in a minute.”
As I lost 7000 feet he came up and we talked over how we were going to do it. By the time we got that settled we were down to about 100 feet and finally went on to 40 feet. It was a pleasant interlude to bat along 200 miles an hour only 40 feet high. When we’d finished I reefed back and we climbed up to 4000 feet.
So far we’d been on a Contact Flight Rule clearance.
Getting closer to Atlanta the upper deck had thickened and was alto-stratus and it started to rain. I decided I’d better get going on an ATC clearance before I got on instruments. I fired up the transmitter and called Atlanta.
“Atlanta radio this is Army 1294. Over.” Oh, how I hate that “Over” business.
They answered and I gave them a flight plan.
“Four thousand to Alma and then a climb to above 17000 feet.”
They didn’t come back with a clearance, but instead they said:
“ATC advises that a severe hurricane is centered a few miles south of Jacksonville. Advise your plans.”
I called them back. “Atlanta from 1294—we know about the hurricane. We want to fly it—this is a weather research ship.”
That got the clearance and after it had been given I requested the traffic in the area and along the route.
“No traffic,” was the answer, and I had expected it, too.
A little past Atlanta the rain caused a lower cloud deck of stratus and our 4000 feet put us between layers in moderate rain. The wind was picking up because it took a lot more drift correction to stay on the leg. I called the gang on the interphone.
“Get ready to go on oxygen. Have you got the voice recorder set up, Phil?”
Everyone acknowledged the oxygen warning and Phil said the recorder was ready. Barney came up front and stood between the co-pilot and me where he could reach the engine gadgets. He looked forward at the rain on the windshield and the foggy nothingness.
“Stinks, eh boss?”
“Can’t see a hell of a lot at that.”
It got a little choppy and the wind became stronger and the rain harder. We were getting closer to the center. So far it wasn’t much more than a regular wet northeaster we have around New York every spring and fall. I decided to go up.
“Let’s go flying,” I said to Barney and pointed up. He richened the mixtures, opened the cowl flaps a little, boosted up the RPM and opened the throttles. I gently pulled back and we started up.
On the interphone—”We’re starting up. Phil—Foley, better put on your masks.”
“Okay,” they answered, and I motioned for Garth, the co-pilot, to fly as I got out my helmet, put it on and fitted the mask. I checked the regulator, the head phones, and the mike in the mask. They all worked. I took over again and Garth and Barney got their masks on. When you finally get your mask on, the others in the plane become very distant because you can’t talk to them directly, but can only converse through the interphone and it’s like talking on a telephone—sort of real, but still not personal.
It seems, too, that when you get on oxygen a line of chatter starts that never ends until the masks come off.
We were about 10,000 feet now with the temperature three degrees centigrade. It was raining pretty hard and some of the rain was sleet. I began to wonder how much ice there would be when we got to below freezing.
Barney was busy checking the head temperatures, playing with the turbo regulator to keep the manifold pressure I wanted and just looking at all the things—the instruments and then outside at the engines themselves. I kept up a little chatter on the recorder about the clouds and conditions. I remember saying that the main cloud deck started at about 5000 feet—moderate rain.
At 7000 feet the tension of the entire crew snapped into something real. It was the turbulence that caused it. Not rough air in the usual sense, but rather that choppy feeling, and although it wasn’t violent you could feel it had teeth in it—it felt like a thunderstorm in Georgia last summer that had tossed us out its side three times. About then the rate of climb showed an extra 1000 feet a minute up and for the first time I slid up a little further on the seat and motioned Barney to hold the throttles in case I needed his help. The bumps were vicious, and although they weren’t bad you felt something big was on its way. The whole airplane felt this subtle giant that had jabbed us with his finger a few times. And then Foley came in on the interphone.
“Hey—straighten up and fly right.”
“Hold your hats, girls, this might get choppy,” I warned them.
“I’m ready—let ‘er go.” Foley said.
I looked at Barney and he nodded. The lower part of his face was covered with the rubber mask and the helmet covered the top of his head right down over his forehead so that the only thing showing was the bridge of his nose and his blue Irish eyes. I can always tell what he’s thinking by those eyes. They get very serious at times, but mostly they twinkle.
Garth was busy taking down the temperatures at various levels and marking down the clouds. He was very industrious and serious as always. I couldn’t tell about his eyes because they were hidden behind a huge pair of sun glasses.
The choppy, nasty air only lasted to about 9000 feet and then it smoothed out again. I turned toward Barney and said, “The big sissy.” His eyes twinkled and I knew he agreed it wasn’t rough but just to make sure he held his palms in front of him prayer-like and closed his eyes. When he opened his eyes I could see he was laughing.
At about 9000 we broke out on top of the first layer. It had been strato-cumulus and now we were between layers and it was raining hard. It wasn’t clear between the layers. You couldn’t see anything and you were on instruments, but you knew it was between layers because there wasn’t any fuzz on the wing tips and the fog part of the cloud wasn’t wisping over the wings between the engines. It rained harder and trying to ride a beam I carried about thirty degrees drift because of east winds. And then the static started—the regular receiver went out and everything else with it so I turned to the loop and put it in rain static position. Ah, those wonderful loops—the signals banged in just like old times. But soon I noticed a little clicking and in a few minutes it increased and the fuzzy noise finally knocked the loop out too.
“Phil,” I called in the interphone, “you can throw the damned radio out the window now. It’s just dead weight.”
“Yes, I noticed,” he said very calmly.
“The loop’s out too,” I said.
“Oh, is it, I hadn’t noticed that.” This seemed to please him greatly.
“Is this hot enough?” I asked.
“It’s pretty hot stuff,” he drawled out in his Montana lingo. I’d rather have heard him say, “Hot as hell,” but you can’t please an engineer.
I flipped out the interphone and went back to the radio. Occasionally I could hear a signal, but it was spotty and it made things a little fretful. Without any navigational aids and maybe 100 m.p.h. winds you could get lost. I tried to visualize the center of the storm and the winds around it so I could guess where to change the drift correction and how much. It was a little hard to visualize with all the other things going on, so I took out my crayon pencil and drew a circle on top of a plain metal control box that’s by my elbow. Then I drew in some winds, very roughly, and tried to put a dot where I thought Jacksonville was and another where we were and it made a nice little picture. Then I could easily see how the wind would change and do something about it.
At 14,000 the rain was all snow – great big flakes—great big wet flakes and it didn’t help the radio at all. The stuff stuck a little on the windshield wiper and in little corners on the wing fairing and it stuck on the ignition harness and propeller governor control line. It wasn’t ice, however. Nothing to worry about.
“That’s wet,” said Barney, “just like that stuff we got around British Columbia last Spring.”
“Yeah — sure is,” I answered. I knew what Barney meant as we all recalled the wet snow sticking in the carburetor scoops and how it got inside and how the four engines began to act up badly. Then at the same time we ran into heavy ice and all in all it had been quite a little deal. But that was last spring, now it was fall over Florida.
“This’d be a hell of a place for those four fans to quit,” he said.
“Why don’t you keep your big mouth shut,” Foley piped up from the back.
“Oh, brother,” was my only comment, but I thought a lot more. About how it would look now down there on the ground. The palm trees leaning way over and the rain—not falling, but driving horizontally in great sheets and the palm fronds flying through the air, everything dark and grayish, and all hell breaking loose in a howling world of wind, rain and flying debris. That’d be quite a place to land, but instead we flew—now near 18,000 feet, in a land of wet sticky snow, not able to see anything, but smooth and calm and snug inside our airplane. It looked as though the best place to be in a hurricane was in an airplane— if the engines kept pounding.
We were near 20,000 feet now and the snow was smaller and the radio came in for longer periods. I discovered that I was off to the east so I headed back west to get on the beam leg again. It took a long time and when I finally did make it I found my thirty degree right drift was now about thirty degree left drift. We’d passed the center or near it somewhere back there—or reached the top of the weather and gotten into the regular westerly circulation. I think it was the storm’s center though, because the wind was terribly strong and we were still on instruments. The amazing part of all this is that in all the distance, from 9,000 to where we were now, about 22,000, we’d never been in any cloud but just on instruments in snow. We kept plugging.
Periodically I checked with the boys to see if they were getting enough oxygen.
“Foley, you alive?”
“Okay,” he drawled back.
“Garth? How do you feel?”
He turned toward me. “Oh, fine-okay,” and he went back to his papers.
I turned to Barney, but I didn’t have to ask him because I could see his eyes and the reddish color of his nose that spelled health. I know how he could look the other way too, because at 28,000 feet one time I turned to check up and found Barney sitting on the floor, the bridge of his nose blueish, and he was half out. There had been a mad scramble and I hooked his mask to a new outlet and poured in an emergency flow of oxygen. And when the emergency shot got to him he began to turn from blue to a beautiful rosy pink.
“Oh, brother,” I remember him saying, “that feels wonderful.” And he had emphasized and drawn out the “wonderful.” It wasn’t like that today. He was okay.
At 24,000 it began to look lighter and at 25,000 we broke out on top. Not that we actually topped the thing, but rather we came out the side near the top. I turned east to be able to see what we had come out of. It looked like a cold front from about 14,000—lots of cloud built up in cumulus fashion and lots of cirrus, all mixed in together. It looked rough and nasty, but it hadn’t been, and when we finally did break out on top we still hadn’t gone through any actual cloud since the 9000 foot level, but they certainly looked like clouds from the outside. Now I wondered where we had gone through the thing—how near the center. I looked to the west of where we had come out and to the east, and it looked about the same. We flew east out to sea for a time to see if it built any higher or looked wilder, but it didn’t, and finally I could see the eastern end of it. We must have gone pretty close to the center.
Now we turned back west to get to the coast and then Miami. The west wind must have been very strong because it took over twice as long to get back west as it had to go east. The cloud tops now dropped rapidly and we started a slow descent from our 25,000 feet. I tried to get Jacksonville radio but without luck. We plodded on south slowly losing altitude. The cloud deck top was lower still and in 100 miles from the storm’s center it dropped from 25,000 feet to about 4000 feet!
I began to fret now about the Miami weather. By all the rules it ought to be okay, but I hadn’t had any reports at all. I tried to raise Daytona Beach and got him.
“What’s your weather?”
“Special—400 feet 7 miles—wind SW 35 gusts to 55 …”
Well, that was pretty good for Daytona Beach. And just then I noticed a break through the clouds and could see the ocean. It looked awfully rough.
I turned to Garth. “Tell ‘em we’ll land at Daytona Beach and get his altimeter setting.”
Then I called the crew. “I’m going to land at Daytona. No use wasting another 200 miles of gasoline to Miami for nothing.”
“I’m ready,” said Foley.
“Me too,” said Phil. “I’m hungry, too.”
“Good deal,” said Barney.
Garth was busy working Daytona on the radio and having a little trouble, but he got them.
“No traffic, cleared to land,” he told me. That always is a nice thing about this kind of flying. There’s seldom traffic and you get airways clearance quickly and without a bunch of reservations.
At 12,000 feet the masks started coming off and everyone was twisting their faces into weird contortions to relieve the squeezed up feeling the masks give. Looking at Garth, I could see the deep lines imprinted in his face by the mask. We all had the lines; sometimes they lasted for hours. Barney and Garth lit cigarettes. The pleasure they always get from the first cigarette after being on oxygen almost makes me wish I hadn’t quit smoking.
We kept working back and forth between the coast and the sea which we could see through breaks. It was smooth until we hit the top of the clouds and then it became rough, very rough. The wind was strong and when we did get contact the sea was white and the sea foam and spray whipped from the wave tops.
“Nice place to land,” Foley said.
“I guess you’d skip about five times on those waves, leaving one-fifth of the airplane on each skip,” I observed.
But then it was too rough to talk much. We came in from the north and flew down the beach at about 300 feet trying to see any damage. There were trees blown over and boats and a few light buildings. You could tell things had happened. The wind was coming out of the west very hard because we seemed to go down the beach sideways. There must have been forty degrees drift.
“Ask ‘em for the wind again,” I told Garth. And the answer came back “SW 35 gusts to 55.” It was stronger than that at 300 feet. The turbulence felt a lot like the front of a thunderstorm. The kind that has you up against the belt one minute and slammed down on the seat the next.
We read the check list, put the gear down and got lined up on the runway. I used about 20 miles an hour extra approach speed and was glad of it, because at about 150 feet somebody kicked the legs out from under us and we settled quickly. The wind must have dropped, right there, from about 85 to 55. You could really feel it.
Lined up with the runway it didn’t look too good, because I had a lot of drift. I thought we might as well try it—we could always get going again. I crabbed along and used just one quarter flap. I could notice Garth on the edge of his seat and Barney standing close to the turbo’s ready to get under way if I called “Go around!”
It was a Navy field and out of the corner of my eye I could see a hundred or more blue spots that were sailors standing in the lee of a hangar watching us—and I saw a couple of crash trucks just off the runway. The sky was gray and it still was nasty and rough. I began to think that maybe we should have wasted that extra gas to Miami. But then I forgot it because we were almost on the ground. I got down close to the runway and then pushed very hard on that big rudder and kicked out the drift, and at the same time shoved her forward and slapped the wheels on the ground.
“Up flaps!” I called, and what little flap we’d used came up. We ran along nicely for awhile and then she wanted to go off to the right and it was one of those minutes when your heart starts up and you wonder if you have control. I hit the brake easy and just tapped the two right engines and she behaved like a little lamb and as quickly as the scare had come it went away and you knew you had her. We settled down to a stop and turned toward the hangars. I could see the crash trucks pulling away and going back to where they normally parked.
“Well, well,” said Barney, “So this is Daytona Beach.”
“So ’tis, so ’tis,” I answered.