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Utility Navigation

Aircraft Operations

Lockheed WP-3D Orion

NOAA Lockheed WP-3D Orion with New Livery - October 2016

NOAA Lockheed WP-3D Orion N42RF, also known as "Kermit," in its new paint scheme following a major 19-month overhaul.

NOAA's two Lockheed WP-3D Orion "Hurricane Hunters" play a key role in collecting data vital to tropical cyclone research and forecasting. These highly-capable four-engine turboprops also support a wide variety of atmospheric and air chemistry missions.

When it comes to hurricane forecasting, NOAA has many tools. Radar, satellites and computer models all play a role in forecasting hurricanes, but they each have their own limitations. In order to overcome these limitations, NOAA operates two Lockheed WP-3D Orion aircraft in order to conduct low-altitude data collection to fill gaps in data not available from ground based radar or satellite imagery.

NOAA's WP-3D Orions are equipped with a unique array of scientific instrumentation, radars and recording systems for measurements of the atmosphere, the earth and its environment. Obtained as new aircraft from the Lockheed production line in the mid-70s, these robust and well maintained aircraft have led NOAA's continuing efforts to monitor and study hurricanes and other severe storms, the quality of the atmosphere, oceanographic conditions, and climate trends.

NOAA WP-3D Flight Director

NOAA Meteorologist and Flight Director Richard Henning at his station aboard NOAA Lockheed WP-3D Orion N43RF during a flight into Hurricane Edouard in September 2014.

With their world-wide operating capability, these proven, robust aircraft and their crews have participated in numerous research experiments worldwide. On a national scope, they have operated from the Arctic Ocean and Alaska through most regions of the U.S. and into the Caribbean. The aircraft, nicknamed "Kermit" (N42RF) and "Miss Piggy" (N43RF) have supported hurricane and tropical storm research in the Atlantic, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Pacific.

To obtain the best possible data within the storm environment, crewmembers deploy expendable probes called GPS dropwindsondes through a launch tube in the aircraft. As they parachute to the sea below, the probes transmit pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed and wind direction data back to the aircraft. After the dropsonde data is checked for accuracy, it is transmitted from the aircraft to the National Centers for Environmental Prediction and the National Hurricane Center for inclusion into global and hurricane models. The aircraft can also deploy airborne expendable bathythermographs, which measure ocean temperature as a function of depth.

NOAA's WP-3D Orions are also equipped with lower fuselage (LF) and tail Doppler radar (TDR) systems. Mounted to the belly of the aircraft, the LF radar scans the storm horizontally while the TDR scans vertically. Together, these systems provide researchers and forecasters an MRI-like look at the storm, allowing them to see all the different layers and internal structure from within the storm. NOAA's WP-3D Orions are the only aircraft in the nation's hurricane hunter fleet equipped with these radar systems.

These aircraft are also equipped with Step Frequency Microwave Radiometers (SFMRs). Developed by NOAA, the SFMRs sense wind speed at the surface of the ocean by measuring and computing radiation emitted by seafoam that is created by the high winds at the surface. This information is critical to researchers at the National Hurricane Center for forecasting storms.

Standard Aircraft Specifications
Engine Type 4 Rolls-Royce (fomerly Allison) T56-14 Turbo Prop Engines
Each rated at 4600 Shaft Horse Power (SHP)
Crew: 2 Pilots, Flight Engineer, Navigator, Flight Director (meteorologist), 2 or 3 Engineering/Electronic specialists, Radio/Avionics specialist, and a up to 12 Scientists.
Max. Takeoff Weight: 135,000 lbs.
Ceiling: 27,000'
Rate of Climb: Up to 3000 FPM depending on aircraft gross weight and density altitude
Operational Airspeeds: 170 - 250 KIAS
Electrical: 4 Generators (3 are engine driven, 1 Auxiliary Power Unit)
Each generator yields 120 volt, 3 phase, 400HZ power 90 KVA max power
Max. Gross Weight: 135,000 lbs max takeoff weight 
114,000 lbs max landing (103,880 is normal)
Empty Weight: Approximately 73,000 lbs depending on scientific gear installed
Maximum zero Fuel weight: Approximately 77,000 lbs.
Useful Load: Approximately 62,000 lbs
Fuel Load: 58,000 lbs.
Type Fuel: JP4, JP5, JP8, JET A, JET A-1, JET B
Maximum Range and Duration: LOW ALTITUDE - 2500 NM OR 9.5 HRS
Dimensions (external): Wingspan = 99 ' 8"
Length = 116' 10"
Height to top of fin = 34' 3"
Top of fin to lower skin = 24' 4"

Rockwell Collins C-band nose radar
Lower fuselage C-band research radar – 360 deg. horizontal fan beam
Tail Doppler radar

Cloud Physics: PMS 2-dimensional and 1-dimensional precipitation and cloud particle probes
PMS Forward and Axially scattering particle probes 
Aerosol sampling system
RadiOMETERS: Sea surface temperature radiometer
CO2 air temperature radiometer
Eppley solar and terrestrial pyranometer and pyrgeometer radiometers
Expendables: GPS dropwindsonde atmospheric profiling system
Airborne Expendable Bathythermographs (AXBT’s)
Miscellaneous: C-band and Ku-band scatterometers
Stepped Frequency Microwave Radiometer
Radome Flow Angle Sensors
External Wing Store Station Mounts
Dual Inertial and GPS Navigation Systems


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