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STORMCHASERS by David Toomey


The Hurricane Hunters and Their Fateful Flight into Hurricane Janet


Pub Date: July 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-393-02000-2
Publisher: Norton

A sturdy revivification of one star-crossed hurricane-hunting mission by Navy fliers, plus a more general (and more gratifying) history of hurricanes.

As Toomey (Amelia Earhart's Daughters, 1998) sketches it out for readers, the post-WWII period was the first time that it was possible to make aerial reconnaissance of violent weather, thanks to the wealth of trained pilots and advances in technology. These were the Hurricane Hunters, and in their 30-year history, only one plane was lost. Toomey weaves the story of that crew's final flight throughout this narrative, but it fails to prompt much excitement, mainly because Toomey has refused to take any creative liberties with the flight—it is not known what happened to the plane, whether wind shear or downdraft or flooded engines caused it to crash—and his conjectures are kept to a few terse pages. Vest-pocket biographies of the fliers aren't enough to provoke much human interest, either. What keeps the story afloat are descriptions of the gathering storm—Hurricane Janet, with monster winds—and a broad look at hurricanes through history. Toomey charts the early research and then closely follows all the academic beard-pulling of the following decades over the nature of hurricanes. The storm work of Robert Hare, William Redfield, Vilhelm Bjerknes, and Lewis Richardson is handily covered, though Toomey occasionally gets in over his head, as in brief forays into the nature of turbulence and fluid dynamics. Finally, we still know little about the storms: Questions both small (why the air in the eye is warmer than the air in the surrounding clouds) and large (the nature of the interactions among the storm's components) still confound meteorologists.

What Toomey most neatly taps into is that strange moment in time when storm-hunting made sense, when a few years earlier such missions would have been logistically and technologically impossible, and a few years later advances in technology would make such flights, at the least, quixotic. (16 pages of photographs)