The U.S. Air Force's Hurricane Hunters are giving us a front-row seat to the awe and fury of monstrous Category 5 Hurricane Lee.
On Thursday night, the Air Force Reserve 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron flew into Lee's eyewall during its period of rapid intensification, unsure of the storm's strength.
"We knew it was going to be strong and further developing, but we didn't know that it was going to be a Category 5," said Hurricane Hunter Lt. Col. Mark Withee, the navigator who flew into the center of the hurricane, an experience few people on Earth can relate to.
Yet a Category 5 storm is exactly what his team found when they flew into the storm and made four passes through the eye wall, Withee told FOX Weather.
"Obviously, there was a lot of convection and lightning going on last night, but we managed to get down safely," he added.
Crew witnesses Hurricane Lee's ‘stadium effect’
The Air Force Reserve 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron’s aircraft was able to document the powerful storm, measuring a peak wind speed of 165 mph. It was an explosion in intensity from 80 mph just the night before.
Hurricane Hunters fly into tropical systems to gather atmospheric data for accurate weather models, NOAA said. They locate the center of the storm to determine direction, speed, pressure, and intensity, which improves forecasting.
On this flight, the crew observed the "stadium effect" in the eye of Hurricane Lee, which is a phenomenon that occurs in highly intense hurricanes, according to NOAA.
The layers of towering eye wall clouds amid the clear center gives the feel of being in the middle of a stadium.
"It’s something you see with very powerful storms," says FOX Weather Meteorologist Steve Bender. "You have a broad eye like this and then the momentum and the spiraling effect of the winds — once they get up to 60-,70-, 80,000 feet, it starts to spiral outwards and you have that outflow that comes in and basically builds that stadium effect."
When flying into Lee Thursday, Withee noted the absence of moonlight, requiring crews to rely solely on radar for guidance in the darkness.
"But then once we were in the eye of the storm, then it was mostly dark, except for the repeated lightning that would flash up and illuminate, so we could see it beyond just what the radar picture was showing," he said.
As they navigated through the eyewall, Withee said they carefully search for any potential dangers. Meanwhile, the weather officer in the back of the aircraft uses their instruments to direct the aircraft towards the center of the storm with the lowest pressure and circulation.
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Withee said his crew is expected to be taking off again at 5 a.m. Saturday to track the progress of Lee. The storm is currently forecast to move far north of the northern Leeward Islands, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico during the upcoming weekend and early next week. But its potential path for East Coast impacts remains uncertain.
Meanwhile, swells from Lee will hit the Lesser Antilles on Friday and the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Turks and Caicos Islands, Bahamas and Bermuda this weekend.
These swells are likely to cause life-threatening surf and rip current conditions, the National Hurricane Center warns. Dangerous surf and rip currents are expected to begin along most of the U.S. East Coast beginning Sunday.