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NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters Looking For A New Florida Home

The hurricane hunter plane named Gonzo at the MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa./Photo: Catherine Welch
The hurricane hunter plane named Gonzo at the MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa./Photo: Catherine Welch

When a hurricane barrels toward Florida, pilots with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or fly their planes, nicknamed “hurricane hunters,” into the storm.

The information they collect helps with forecasts and evacuation orders.

The planes are housed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, but not for long. The base is evicting them. Now NOAA is scrambling to find a new home for the planes.

I’m walking onto one of NOAA’s hurricane hunters. It was recently on display at the Naples airport as part of a tour to get people ready for the season.

In the cockpit are two seats and a little Hawaiian luau dancer between the windows. There are four rows of seats some have computers and laptops they all have headsets and lights.”

The National Hurricane Center relies on NOAA’s planes to help keep track of a storm. The hurricane hunters drop sensors into the storm while on a mission. They take in data like humidity, wind speed and temperature.

The planes have operated out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa for more than 20 years. But, this hurricane season will be their last there.

“MacDill Airforce Base informed us on Feb. 1 that we were going to be displaced and had to leave our current facility next June so we got a little bit of time but not much,” said Michael Silah. He’s the commanding officer at NOAA’s aircraft operations center.

The base is evicting NOAA’s planes because it expects to house more of its own aircraft there in a few years.

The center is now looking for a new home, and Silah said the search is being done in two phases: short and long term. The first phase involves finding somewhere to house the planes for the next five years that’s within 50 miles of MacDill.

“That’s really to protect the work force,” said Silah. “These are highly skilled employees so losing them would be very damaging for us. In an effort to keep our workforce together, we’re going to look local first and that should be about for the next five years and in that time we're going to look more broadly to find us a long term home.”

Flying out of the Tampa location gives NOAA access to the Caribbean, said Silah. That makes Tampa a perfect location and he said he hopes they’ll stay in the area.

Since the Air Force Base made the call earlier this year, federal lawmakers have also been trying to figure out where to put the hurricane hunters.

Republican Congressman David Jolly represents Pinellas County. He first hoped to keep the NOAA planes at MacDill by building a new center there. But, that would require some funding jujitsu because NOAA and MacDill operate under different agencies.

“And that might be a long term solution to have them remain at MacDill perhaps after this next five year contract,” said Jolly. “That would require construction. Inter-agency construction dollars.”

As NOAA plans its next steps, Jolly says he wants the planes to stay local.

“It is a regional asset for us both in terms of protecting the public, in terms of public safety but in terms of 100 plus employees who work in NOAA,” said Jolly, “ensuring that their lives aren’t disrupted and also the economic impact the economic footprint of having NOAA here and then simply it's a assets that the region should be proud of.”

NOAA operates under the U.S. Department of Commerce. Jolly said he’s met with its secretary to discuss the topic, and visited potential new locations for the planes.

Jolly would like to see the hurricane hunters move next to St. Pete/Clearwater, which has both ramp and runway space. “They also have hangar space and they have office space. NOAA could almost move in today,” said Jolly. “Tampa International Airport has some of that but not all of it but in the course of the year they probably could arrange to accommodate those three important criteria”

NOAA’s Michael Silah said they hope to announce the planes’ new location around December.