For much of his five-decade federal career, James McFadden literally has been in the eye of the storm.
As the government’s longest-serving hurricane hunter, McFadden is the heart and soul of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aircraft Operations Center that sends aircraft into the harshest weather to gather real-time, life-saving specifics on the formation and progress of earth’s deadliest storms.
“Throughout his career, the invaluable storm data he has collected has prevented the loss of countless lives and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage by providing critical early warning to those in harm’s way,” said Timothy Gallagher, chief of flight operations for the Aircraft Operations Center.
“Jim’s forward-thinking leadership and careful oversight of the hurricane hunter program has immeasurably influenced the evolution of airborne data collection in this unique environment,” Gallagher said.
Measuring and forecasting storm intensity is tricky. To get readings, hurricane hunter airplanes fly into the storm and drop devices through it that measure temperature, wind speed, direction and barometric pressure. The devices send the data back to the plane where it is analyzed and transmitted to NOAA’s National Hurricane Center.
A meteorologist by training, the 82-year-old McFadden, called Doc, has seen it all, from the early use of computers and satellites to sophisticated sensors, radar systems and now unmanned aircraft.
As an onboard scientist, McFadden has flown into hurricanes more than 575 times, often experiencing severe turbulence and sometimes harrowing situations. This included losing an engine in 2003 when tracking Hurricane Isabel.
McFadden still flies occasionally, but now is in charge of all work involving the aircraft, including tornado research and air quality studies. He makes sure that the nine planes and their crews at the operations center have the technology and equipment necessary to obtain the most accurate storm data possible so it can be turned into accurate forecasts.
McFadden sees what needs to be done strategically to achieve “the next generation of hurricane hunting,” said Carl Newman, executive officer of NOAA’s Marine Fisheries Service and a former hurricane hunter.
“He is an anchor who continues to reinvent, motivate and drive the organization to continue to innovate and do better,” Newman said. “He has been here since the beginning and has shepherded each generation through the program.”
Bill Read, the retired director of the National Hurricane Center, said McFadden has “phenomenal dedication” to the work. “He’s exceptional in a unique field of flying these storms and gathering the data,” Read said.
That degree of dedication and effort by McFadden and his colleagues has paid off in greater safety for the American people. In the past five years, the five-day forecast has become as accurate as the three-day forecast was 10 years ago.
“There isn’t a single person who has experienced a hurricane or a tropical cyclone who hasn’t been directly impacted by his work in a positive way,” Newman said.
Accurate, real-time information about storms, especially whether they are intensifying and how fast, is critical—especially to government officials trying to decide whether to issue evacuation orders.
It’s a complicated process, and the people involved need to know what to do with the data, as McFadden does.
“McFadden understands the concerns of the emergency managers, what kind of data they need to make the best decisions, what the system doesn’t do well and how to compensate for that,” said Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Local officials need to have enough confidence in the forecasts that they will order an evacuation well before a storm makes landfall,” he added.
In recent years, McFadden has helped NOAA incorporate the use of drone aircraft in flight operations, an area scientists believe to be the future of storm research.
Unmanned aircraft can fly into the turbulent eye of the hurricane where it’s too dangerous to send manned aircraft, and get data that can increase understanding of hurricanes and the accuracy of forecasts.
For his part, McFadden is proud of what he and his colleagues have accomplished, and is still enjoying the ride. “I think we’ve come a long way to help improve the safety of the American people,” he said.