Feds at Work: Hunting hurricanes for nearly 50 years

Flew into violent tropical storms hundreds of times to gather weather information for accurate forecasting

For much of his five-decade federal career, James McFadden literally has been in the eye of the storm.

He is the government’s longest-serving hurricane hunter, and the heart and soul of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aircraft Operations Center. The center sends aircraft into the harshest weather to gather real-time, life-saving specifics on the formation and progress of Earth’s deadliest storms.

James McFadden (Photo by Aaron Clamage)

“Throughout his career, the invaluable storm data he has collected has prevented the loss of countless lives and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage by providing critical early warning to those in harm’s way,” said Timothy Gallagher, the center’s chief of flight operations.

“Jim’s forward-thinking leadership and careful oversight of the hurricane hunter program has immeasurably influenced the evolution of airborne data collection in this unique environment,” Gallagher added.

Measuring and forecasting storm intensity is tricky. To get readings, planes fly into the storm and drop devices through it that measure temperature, wind speed, direction and barometric pressure. The devices send the data back to the plane where it is analyzed and transmitted to NOAA’s National Hurricane Center.

NOAA films its Hurricane Hunters in action, as they explain their daily work inside two aircrafts, the NOAA WP-3D Orion “Hurricane Hunter” aircraft and the NOAA G-IV SP Research Aircraft (Video courtesy of NOAA).

The 82-year-old McFadden, known by colleagues as “Doc,” has seen it all — from the early use of computers and satellites to sophisticated sensors, radar systems and now unmanned aircraft.

He has flown into hurricanes as an onboard scientist more than 575 times. He has experienced severe turbulence and harrowing situations, including in 2003 when the plane he was on lost an engine while tracking Hurricane Isabel.

“He is an anchor who continues to reinvent, motivate and drive the organization to continue to innovate and do better.” ~ Carl Newman, NOAA

A meteorologist by training, McFadden still flies occasionally, but now is in charge of all work involving the aircraft, including tornado research and air quality studies. He makes sure the nine planes and their crews have the technology and equipment to get the best storm data possible for the most accurate forecasts.

“He is an anchor who continues to reinvent, motivate and drive the organization to continue to innovate and do better,” said Carl Newman, executive officer of NOAA’s Marine Fisheries Service and a former hurricane hunter.

“He has been here since the beginning and has shepherded each generation through the program.”

Bill Read, the retired director of the National Hurricane Center, said McFadden has “phenomenal dedication” to the work. “He’s exceptional in a unique field of flying these storms and gathering the data.”

That dedication and efforts of McFadden and his colleagues have paid off in greater safety for the American people. In the past five years, the five-day forecast has become as accurate as the three-day forecast was 10 years ago.

Accurate, real-time information about storms, especially whether they are intensifying and how fast, is critical when government officials are deciding whether to issue evacuation orders.

“McFadden understands the concerns of the emergency managers, what kind of data they need to make the best decisions, what the system doesn’t do well and how to compensate for that,” said Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Local officials need to have enough confidence in the forecasts that they will order an evacuation well before a storm makes landfall.”

In recent years, McFadden has helped NOAA incorporate drone aircraft in flight operations, an area scientists believe to be the future of storm research.

Unmanned aircraft can fly into the turbulent eye of the hurricane when it’s too dangerous to send people.

McFadden is proud of what he and his colleagues have accomplished and is still enjoying the ride. “I think we’ve come a long way to help improve the safety of the American people.”

James McFadden is a finalist for a 2016 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, or Sammies. Each year, the Partnership for Public Service honors federal employees whose remarkable accomplishments make our government and our nation stronger. For the second time, we will also present the annual “People’s Choice” award. Please vote for the person or team you find most inspiring. (Voting closes at 11:59 p.m. EST on September 9, 2016.)