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Hurricane Force

There’s a lot to consider for pilots in the path of a hurricane

If you choose to live in a tropical or sub-tropical climate, you have to be aware of the threat of hurricanes. Like an in-flight emergency, it may never happen, but if you are prepared, you increase the chances of survival for you and your passengers.

Hurricanes are nothing to be cavalier or blasé about. This spring, I asked a friend who recently moved to Florida if she had thought about hurricane season, and it concerned me that she answered “No.” When summer heats up and waves of tropical weather start building off the coast of Africa, hurricanes can develop remarkably fast. And while no one is ever truly ready, it’s a fallacy to think there will be sufficient time to prepare. Will you leave or stay? Do you have plywood pre-cut to board your windows up? Are you ready for when you lose power? Are supplies on hand for family and your pets? Once the storm starts, there is no normal, and you quickly realize you’re on your own because everyone else is scrambling, too.

No matter how well prepared you are for the big storm, the reality is you have no idea where it will hit and how much damage it will do. It’s always a crapshoot, and the only sure way to be safe is to get out of harm’s way. Hurricanes have minds of their own. They can snake all over the place and make a 270-degree turn just when you thought they were heading out to sea (Hurricane Jeanne, 2004). An early exit will give you more options, like unclogged roads and closer hotel rooms. The longer you wait, the slower the roads and the farther you have to drive to find a hotel.

If you’re a pilot and have access to an airplane, your choices will be dramatically different. No longer a slave to the highway, a long open road stretches out in front of you, and you can go further, faster and, I think, safer. You can wait longer to evacuate, at least until the first outer bands of rain come in, and you can also usually get home sooner. But you can’t wait too long—or it will be too late. Every gate at our airport constantly reminds us with a sign that reads: This airport will be closed 8 hours prior to the landfall of any named storm.

For pilots, depending on what category the storm is and whether you are close to water and a possible storm surge, you have to think about repositioning airplanes out of harm’s way. Again, you have to make the decision early when moving airplanes and fly far enough away out of any danger zone. Before Irma this year, we repositioned several airplanes, and, thanks to airshow friends like Buck Roetman and Gary Rower, we had a lot of options where to hangar our airplanes. In 2004, I stayed home during Jeanne, but due to a predicted storm surge I repositioned my Extra to an airport 40 miles inland. After I lost power and was watching the news on a little portable black and white TV, I heard the announcement that tornadoes were touching down, just about 40 miles inland. Did I mention that hurricanes were ironic?

Photo: Patty Wagstaff

Every storm has stories. In 1999, huge and foreboding Hurricane Floyd made its way up the coast and was predicted to make landfall in northern Florida. My boyfriend and I loaded our three parrots, bird food, a box of photographs and some other stuff into my B-55 Baron and flew to Nashville, about 500 miles away. We picked an Embassy Suites near the airport, and when we rolled up to the front desk with a luggage cart loaded with caged birds, they very kindly waived their no-pet policy and let us refugees have a room. Squawk!

In 2004, the Caribbean and Florida were hit with four nasty hurricanes that left massive amounts of destruction—Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. Northern Florida experienced them as Category 1 or tropical storms, but they still left a path of debris that took months to clean up. We had airplanes scattered around at different airports out of state and were lucky not to suffer any damage, but friends of mine to the south weren’t as lucky and lost everything—hangars, airplanes and businesses.

This year, I could not think of a good reason to stay for Irma. I knew that if I stayed, I would lose power and hence internet, and wouldn’t be able to work on the projects in my inbox, so I loaded up our Bonanza with my dogs, Ripley and Tootie, and my parrot, Buddha, and found a nice hotel a two-hour flight away in Mississippi. As I flew over I-95 on my way out, it was surreal and fascinating to watch the steady but slow-moving “last flight out” exodus of traffic of nearly 800K people leaving Florida.

If there is a fierce beauty in hurricanes, it is seen from above. The NOAA, USN and USAF Reserve Hurricane Hunters have flown into tropical cyclones and hurricanes since 1943. The Hurricane Hunters do a great service because they can get the information needed to accurately predict hurricane development and movement. I would love to ride along and fly into the eye of a storm!

Often the real damage comes from the tornadoes that spawn out of hurricanes. In 1992, I flew over the greater Miami area a few months after Hurricane Andrew and saw firsthand how vicious and random in nature the tornadoes were, splintering trees into toothpicks. This is why, when the weather experts tell you not to go outside or drive, you should listen to them. NOAA says all tropical cyclones that hit the U.S. produce at least one tornado, the reason being that tornadoes thrive on strong vertical shear, a difference in horizontal winds’ direction and speed at different heights, and tropical cyclones offer a lot of vertical shear.

Returning home is often more difficult than leaving. For one, it can be hard to get information about what has happened and how bad the damage is when power is out (I’ve found texting has been the most accurate way to communicate with friends and neighbors after losing power). During Matthew in October 2016, I watched our downtown area flood under 8 feet of water on TV from a friend’s house 7 miles inland and had no idea what was happening to my nearby house and neighborhood. After Irma passed in September of 2017, I had to wait for the airport to open before returning home, and I also had to make sure we had power so I could open our electric hangar door and be able to exit our post-9/11 electrically operated gate. Our airport has done well during the past few storms, partly because it is so prepared for them.

The value of aviation is clearly evident during a crisis. We are the last ones out and usually the first ones in. While flying can be disrupted by loss of power and damaged airports, it doesn’t take long for things to get up and running. It is private, commercial and government aviation that carries most of the early weight when operating humanitarian relief missions, bringing in food and supplies, rescuing people and pets. We have seen this over and over in places like Haiti, Puerto Rico, Key West.

What can you do if you live on the East Coast or in the potential path of a hurricane or tropical storm? Ultimately, try to stay out of harm’s way and hope for the best, but you do have some control in planning your destiny:

Prepare early: If you don’t get supplies early, they will be gone, and that includes water. Before Irma, the shelves in our raucously modern over-shelved super Mercado were weirdly bare; the cereal shelves were sadly empty, and finding large Ziploc bags, of all things, was impossible. I looked for an extra flashlight, and there was only one left on the shelf—a lonely, pricey dual-purpose (with red flashing light) one. I felt so sorry for it I bought it.

Leave! Hurricanes are bigger than us. They are unpredictable, random and chaotic, so don’t be a hero. Make the decision early before you run out of options. Just know that you won’t be able to predict when you can return. For e.g., all of the bridges in the St. Augustine area were closed and guarded by National Guard trucks before and after Matthew and Irma, adding to the “war zone” atmosphere. Residents on the barrier islands could not leave or return home until damage had been assessed.

Stuff: Scan your important stuff so you don’t have to worry about it. During Floyd, I was worried about my boxes of photographs and felt helpless about my “stuff.” Since then, I have scanned most of my photographs and important papers and have backed them up. In particular, scan your airplane’s logbooks and also bring them with you.

Pilots: Your airport might take a few days to open; your hangar might not be useable if it’s damaged or you don’t have power. During the last two storms at our airport, taxiways were used for the cadre of Florida Power & Light trucks, which made some hangars inaccessible.

Why do we stay in areas so prone to extreme weather? Maybe it’s the price we pay for beautiful flying weather, a warm ocean, being close to the islands and sunsets on the Gulf. As I write this on a beautiful sunny fall day, I know that hurricane season in the Atlantic is not over yet. Nate just touched down on the Gulf Coast, and tropical depressions continue to brew up trouble to the east. The threat of extreme weather is, no doubt, very stressful, but it is also nature’s way of saying we can’t always be prepared, and ultimately very little is under our control.

Besides—I’ve seen snowstorms in Alaska that broke the spars of airplanes on tie downs; had my hangar and airplanes destroyed in Tucson by a microburst; I’ve seen tornadoes touch down in Louisiana and Wisconsin, huge dust storms in Phoenix that stopped traffic like Armageddon bearing down, and typhoons that were a regular occurrence in Japan when I was growing up, so I guess I’ve never felt that anything was truly permanent.

Ironically, the best place to be during a hurricane? In the air with the Hurricane Hunters, above it all and in the eye of the storm.


Patty Wagstaff is a 3-time U.S. National Aerobatic champion, and one of the world’s top airshow pilots. Visit pattywagstaff.com/school.html or reach Patty via email through pattyaerobatics@gmail.com.


Want to read more from Patty Wagstaff? Check out our Let It Roll archive.

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