When the vast Central plains of the United States darken with thunderhead clouds, and rain and hailstones begin to pelt the ground, everyone and everything takes cover, except the pilots of the armor-plated T-28 Storm Penetrator airplane. They are part of a scientific research project to understand and predict these massive and often violent thunderstorms.
Each year, hailstorms like this cause more than $2 billion in damage across the United States. The effort to better understand and predict severe weather has led researchers right into the heart of the thunderstorms that produce hail.
They get there in a specially modified 1949 airplane. The T-28 Storm Penetrator is a one of a kind aircraft and Tom Warner is one of 3 pilots who fly it into severe weather. "It's like riding on a roller-coaster in the fog and having strobe lights along side of you. It gets pretty bumpy," he says. "The thing I find makes remarkable is the noise the hail makes when it hits the aircraft. It makes quite a racket."
During the flight, special on-board instruments record data from the storm, while the pilot radios a description of what he is encountering back to meteorologists on the ground.
"This is intense turbulence. It's really getting turbulent. Oh my word, I'm about to get hit. Hail coming in. Another hit. Very turbulent."
A normal small aircraft would be blown out of the sky if it were caught in a storm like this, but Tom Warner says the T-28 has been specially modified to withstand extreme conditions. The plane can take battering by hail up to 7 centimeters in diameter, and it has an extra large engine to help keep it in the air. "This aircraft has been armor plated and that is one of the main reasons it can withstand this hail, the plating on it. And the cockpit has three quarter inch Plexiglas, which is essentially bulletproof. And the metal reinforcement to not only reinforce the canopy but to handle lightning strikes to channel the lightning around the pilot," he says.
The T-28 has been struck by lightning 20 times in its 30 year career. Each time the electricity exits on the flaps and burns off a bit of metal, leaving the pilot and the rest of the plane unscathed. Another danger is frequent ice buildup on the wings, which can make the plane aerodynamically unstable until the pilot drops to a lower altitude and the ice melts.
Like the rest of his team, Tom Warner has years of experience in the cockpit. He flew B-1's in the air force. But these flights allow him to combine his two passions. "A lot of people say 'Are you crazy?' or 'Why do you do this?' For myself, I've always been very fascinated by severe weather. So this is really a passion or dream for a job. We're very safe and methodical about how we do it. So we always have the final say on that. So I really don't call it crazy, I call it the ability to do this for 30 years and it's the only one in the world," he says.
Tom Warner says the knowledge gained from the three decades of research in this aircraft is invaluable. Data from the T-28 flights is being used in the development of new technologies, like hail detecting radar. "Right now, there is a new generation of radar being tested and developed and this allows them to identify where in the storm there is hail, so actually identify where the hail is and tell how big it is... And we, with the T-28, are the only aircraft that can go out there into the storm and provide what we call in situ verification, of what actually they think they are seeing," he says.
T-28 pilots have also been involved in other storm research projects, including development of on-board turbulence detectors for commercial airlines and the study of electric fields inside storms that produce lightning. Tom Warner says the 1949 T-28 is the only airplane that can stand up to the heart of a thunderstorm. But, withstanding the ravages of time is another issue. Engine problems grounded the Storm Penetrator last summer.
But the T-28 is an important tool in the development of new weather warning systems that could save lives and property. So with a new engine and its annual tune up, the plane, and its pilots, are back in the skies over the great American plains, flying into the first thunderstorms of summer.