ORLANDO, Fla. -- As scientists expect to see more hurricanes, Florida's hurricane hunters are getting an upgrade to their fleet.
Stationed about 60 miles south of Orlando, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's hurricane hunter team houses three aircraft at Lakeland Linder International Airport: two Lockheed WP-3D Orion (P-3) four-engine turboprop aircraft and one Gulfstream IV-SP (G-IV).
They are affectionately named after Muppets characters. The P-3s are Kermit and Miss Piggy. The G-IV with the big nose is obviously Gonzo.
The team will have to make room in the garage for a new Gulfstream 550.
The agency had been targeting the acquisition of another aircraft since 2019 and planned for it to be active by 2022. Now the team will have to wait a couple more hurricane seasons before it's ready to join the team, said NOAA Aircraft Operations Center spokesperson Johnathan Shannon.
"We are continuing to work with Gulfstream on integrating the desired instruments and weather modifications and now expect delivery in time for the 2024 hurricane season," Shannon said.
The incoming G-550 baseline, or green, aircraft is expected to cost $40.7 million.
Which Muppet the new aircraft will be named after has yet to be announced, but there's plenty of time before the NOAA gets its hands on it.
The G-550 will be outfitted with weather technology such as real-time Doppler radar, dropsondes capabilities, enhanced sensors and space for wing pods to mount cloud sensors, Shannon said. It will also be tailored to carry up to 14 crew and mission systems operators, including flight directors, meteorologists, hurricane specialists and engineers.
The aircraft will fly between 43,000 and 49,000 feet at Mach 0.8 on 9-hour missions to explore hurricanes, tropical storms and atmospheric rivers, all while doing so with that new aircraft smell -- something long missing in the NOAA's fleet.
The hurricane hunter's G-IV, Gonzo, was built in 1994 and joined the fleet in 1997 after modifications were made to support the NOAA's scientific missions, Shannon said.
"[Gonzo] is reaching the end of its useful service life." However, "There are no immediate plans to retire the NOAA Gulfstream IV-SP," Shannon said. "It will continue to fly missions as long as it remains operationally capable."
Part of the reason the hurricane hunters aren't in a rush to retire Gonzo is that hurricane seasons are getting more taxing.
The 2021 season was well above average with 20 named storms but didn't put the Aircraft Operation Center in a spin like the record-breaking 2020 season, which had 30 named storms, the most ever recorded.
The hurricane hunters logged 678 flight hours last year researching hurricanes. It was also the first time in more than five years that both P-3s were deployed at the same time, Shannon said. This year, hurricane hunters have logged 462 hours.
In September, one of the P-3s, Miss Piggy, had navigational instruments fail while gathering data for Hurricane Sam in the Caribbean. The crew was fine and was able to continue its mission thanks to Kermit, which was waiting in St. Croix, flight director Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Doremus told the Orlando Sentinel earlier this season.
The Aircraft Operations Center did not comment on the status of Miss Piggy's equipment.
Both Kermit and Miss Piggy were obtained from Lockheed Martin in the mid-1970s, according to the NOAA.
For now, both P-3s are on schedule to take off for the remainder of this hurricane season, although talk of replacing the jets was floated earlier this year, Shannon said.