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JIM JONES column | Rare glimpse of NOAA on the job

As the four prop-driven engines revved up for takeoff Friday morning at MacDill Air Force Base, I was sitting in the cockpit of a WP-3D Orion hurricane hunter.

I was right behind one of the pilots, Lt. Cmdr. Cathy Martin. Also in the cockpit were the other pilots on the mission, Capt. Harris Halverson and Lt. Cmdr. Mark Sweeney, and flight engineer Greg Bass.

But it wasn’t hurricanes the crew from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, would be looking for this day.

It was the giant eddy in the Gulf of Mexico, some 120 miles off Anna Maria Island that has been our very good friend. The eddy has helped keep oil from the Deepwater Horizon from coming ashore locally.

The aircraft lifted off at 8:52 a.m. The gauges in the cockpit read, “wheels up,” left, nose, and right.

So, just how does one end up with such a rare opportunity? Most of the credit goes to Sara Kennedy, our reporter who has taken the lead on our spill coverage. Through Sara’s contacts, chief photographer Grant Jefferies got to go along on a C-130 flight earlier in the week, and then late Thursday, we got the call from NOAA.

If you want to join us on a flight to the eddy for a scientific mission, the caller said, you need to let us know in the next few minutes. I checked with Executive Editor Joan Krauter, and we talked about who might be able to go at the drop of a hat. Selfishly, I said I knew a crazy editor who would be perfect for the job: me.

Joan gave me the green light and I called Jack Parrish, a flight meterologist and project manager for NOAA at MacDill.

Be at the front gate of MacDill Air Force Base 7:30 a.m. Friday, and pack a lunch. It will be an 81/2 hour flight, Jack said.

I was there at 6:50 and got to sit in on the weather report by Ian Sears, flight director of training.

No problem with ash from the volcano in Equador or the one in Iceland, for that matter. It would be a perfect day for flying more than 1,900 miles.

“The weather is a piece of cake today,” said Ian, who spent some of his growing up years in Ellenton.

It was my pleasure to get to know a bit about the NOAA folks on the plane. I had a chance to talk to all three pilots, and many of the crew. They are just what you might expect: professional, very bright, friendly and helpful.

Jack Parrish was there, too. He’s a veteran of NOAA, having served since 1980 and having flown more than 400 missions into hurricanes.

Parrish was with the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center when it was still in Homestead.

It was a time when the hurricane hunters became the hunted. Andrew came through in 1992 and leveled Homestead and the base where NOAA flew its operations.

As a result, NOAA moved its aircraft operation to MacDill Air Force Base in 1993.

The move to MacDill gave NOAA better protection for its air fleet than it had in southern Florida.

The move came during a low ebb for MacDill, which had lost its fighter wing and needed tenants, Parrish said.

After Andrew hit, Jack Parrish said his wife told him, “Don’t ever bring your work home again.”

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee Editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.