Hurricane Hunter Backup Bill Passes Senate

March 30, 2017

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill late Wednesday requiring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to have reliable backups available for Hurricane Hunter aircraft. 

The provision, sought by Florida Senator Bill Nelson, comes in the wake of an incident last year when the jet NOAA uses to gather hurricane measurements was forced to land for an emergency corrosion repair during a Hurricane Hermine reconnaissance mission.  The Gulfstream G-IV was grounded for several days, forcing NOAA to scramble to find a temporary replacement.

“When it comes to protecting lives and property, we can’t afford to go without the Hurricane Hunters,” Nelson said following the passage of the measure.  “We need to have a backup plan in place and I’m hopeful we’ll have one in time for hurricane season.” 

NOAA maintains a fleet of three aircraft currently based at MacDill Air Force Base that are designed to fly in and around hurricanes and tropical storms.   The fleet include two P3 propeller aircraft, known as Miss Piggy and Kermit, that fly into storms, but only the one Gulfstream jet, known as Gonzo, can reach the altitudes necessary to get above storms.   The measurements taken by Hurricane Hunters are essential to weather forecasters.  The data is used track and measure the intensity of powerful storms.   On May 1, the Hurricane Hunter fleet is slated to move from Tampa to Lakeland-Linder Regional Airport.

Nelson’s Hurricane Hunter provision was included in a broader weather bill (HR 353).  The legislation now goes to the House for its consideration. 

Below is the text of Sen. Nelson’s statement for the Congressional Record and a summary of the Senate passed legislation.




Mr. NELSON  - Mr. President, for years, I have been working to make sure that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has reliable tools to forecast hurricanes. And today, the Senate has come together on legislation to get us closer to that goal.  In May 2016, just before the start of hurricane season, the Commerce Committee held a hearing on preparedness.  At that hearing, I asked the then-Director of the National Hurricane Center, Dr. Rick Knabb, about the fact that NOAA has two P3 propeller aircraft that fly into the storm, but only the one Gulfstream jet that can fly high enough and long enough to get above the storm. Flying above the storm is critical because the scientists drop sondes out of the belly of the aircraft that fall through the storm sending measurements of the entire vertical profile. This is vital to telling us where the storm is headed and whether it is weakening or strengthening.

Having only one Gulfstream is a single-point-of-failure because if the plane is out of commission, we don’t have a backup ready to go. Unfortunately, my fears were realized a few short months later.  During a Hurricane Hermine reconnaissance mission, NOAA had to ground the Gulfstream for emergency corrosion repairs.  Luckily, a plane owned by the National Science Foundation and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research was not on a mission at the time, and was able to fill in for the NOAA Gulfstream, but you can imagine that this won’t always be the case.  And while the hurricane season seems to be getting longer, the NOAA plane is getting older.  We must have a reliable backup.  So, in January, I filed S. 153, legislation to require NOAA to acquire sufficient backup capability for our hurricane hunter aircraft.  And I am pleased today that the Senate has unanimously passed this measure to as part of a broader weather bill.

I take comfort that even in times of great divisiveness, the Senate can come together on matters of public safety. The power of Mother Nature must be taken seriously. Consider the flooding in California—or the devastating tornadoes that hit Louisiana, Georgia, and Florida early this year. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew took 46 lives in the United States alone.

In addition to requiring backup capability for the hurricane hunters, the broader bill we’ve passed tonight, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act, will improve NOAA’s ability to understand, predict, and —most importantly—to warn people about all kinds of weather events that dramatically affect the economy and people’s daily lives.   It also includes a reauthorization of the Tsunami Warning, Education, and Research Act.   These provisions will give NOAA the tools to protect life and property and to support continued economic growth.  It is my hope that the House follows suit.


HR 353 - BILL SUMMARY – As amended by the Senate

The Senate amended and passed the weather bill (H# 353) last night by unanimous consent.   The Senate-passed bill, as modified by the Thune-Schatz-Nelson substitute amendment (as modified) and the Cantwell amendment includes:


Title I. U.S. Weather Research and Forecasting Improvement.


•          Defines that NOAA weather research programs should prioritize the protection of life and property. This includes developing a technology transfer initiative and leveraging extramural research.

•          Establishes a program to improve tornado warning.

•          Protects and formally establishes the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program

•          Requires NOAA to develop a formal weather research plan.

•          Requires NOAA to develop and maintain a prioritized list of observational needs for maintaining and improving our weather forecast products.

•          Requires that before procuring observing systems or commercially provided data at a cost of more than $500 million, NOAA must quantitatively assess the value of those purchases.

•          Requires an annual report of NOAA computing capacity to run weather models.

•          Defines an improved process to move research into application more efficiently.

•          Authorizes NOAA to conduct outreach to stakeholders in the weather enterprise.

•          Authorizes $120 million for this Title.


Title II. Subseasonal and Forecasting Innovation


•          Requires NOAA to develop and disseminate meteorological forecasts on subseasonal (2 weeks-3 months), seasonal (3 months-1 year), and interannual (up to two years) timescales. Authorizes $26.5 million.


Title III. Weather Satellite and Data Innovation


•          Requires NOAA to complete its COSMIC-1 and COSMIC-2 programs as scheduled; to integrate data from the Integrated Coastal and Ocean Observing System into weather models, and to contract with the National Academy of Sciences to complete a $1 million independent study regarding likely future satellite needs.

•          Requires NOAA to consider options to purchase commercially provided weather satellite data rather than to launch government satellites. Upon completion of a pilot project to purchase commercial weather data to assess its quality and reliability, and before developing any future governmental space system, require NOAA to consider whether existing or planned commercial capabilities are available.  Authorize $24 million total over 4 fiscal years ($6 million each year) for completion of the pilot project.  Still requires NOAA to meet international data sharing obligations.


Title IV. Federal Weather Coordination


•          Formally establishes the Environmental Information Services Working Group as a standing working group within the NOAA Science Advisory Board.

•          Requires OSTP to coordinate relevant weather research and forecasting activities between federal agencies.

•          Authorizes NOAA to establish an exchange program for up to 10 staff each year from the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research to be detailed to the National Weather Service.

•          Authorizes a one year fellowship program at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction for postdoctoral fellows and academic researchers.

•          Requires NOAA to designate at least warning coordination meteorologist at each weather forecast office to work specifically with emergency managers.

•          Requires NOAA to assess and provide recommendations based in social and behavioral science to improve its watch and warning system.

•          Authorizes NOAA to develop an award program for users of NOAA All Hazards Receivers to save lives and property.

•          Requires NOAA to report on the impact of the Air Force’s proposed divestiture in the U.S. Weather Research and Forecasting Model in favor of the European model.

•          Authorizes the ongoing National Weather Service Operations and Workforce Analysis.

•          Requires NOAA to report on contract positions.

•          Requires NOAA to review the unique considerations of how urban environments influence weather patterns.

•          Requires NOAA to acquire backup for the capabilities of the P-3 and G-IV hurricane hunter aircraft sufficient to prevent a single point of failure.

•          Requires NOAA to complete a study on radar coverage gaps.


Cantwell Amendment


•          Reauthorizes the Tsunami Warning, Education, and Research Act through 2021.