The Hurricane Hunters have lost their longest-serving warrior of all-time: Dr. James McFadden, leader of NOAA’s hurricane science program at the Aircraft Operations Center. A 53-year veteran of flying into hurricanes, McFadden passed away peacefully on Monday, September 28, at age 86. He died with his family at his home in Coral Gables, Florida, after a brief illness.
At the time of his death, McFadden was serving as the chief of programs and projects at NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center in Lakeland, Florida, where he was responsible for coordinating all research projects on NOAA’s aircraft, including their three hurricane research airplanes: two P-3 Orions and a high-altitude Gulfstream-IV jet. He had held that position for over 35 years, and had been active in hurricane research since 1965. His government career spanned 57 years, beginning in 1962, after he earned his Ph.D. in meteorology at the University of Wisconsin.
A NOAA Hurricane Hunter for a remarkable 53 years
McFadden did his first hurricane eye penetration on October 6, 1966, into category 3 Hurricane Inez off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. In a 2018 interview with CNN, he said, “It wasn’t that impressive a storm. So it was kind of (like), Well, that wasn’t too bad. I had heard all these stories about the Hurricane Hunters and what a fearsome job it was, and all that kinda stuff, and I was just sort of underwhelmed by my first hurricane penetration.”
McFadden kept flying into hurricanes for another 53 years, logging a total of 590 penetrations into hurricane eyes. His final storm flight took place on September 22, 2019, into Tropical Storm Jerry, northeast of the Leeward Islands. So his active career spanned 52 years, 352 days, earning him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for longest career as a Hurricane Hunter. He was named a 2016 finalist for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, which are lauded as the “Oscars” of government service.
I had the honor of having Jim as my mentor during my four years as a flight meteorologist flying on NOAA’s P-3 Hurricane Hunter aircraft between 1986 and 1990, and will greatly miss his enthusiasm, knowledge, sarcastic wit, and dedication to hurricane science. Jim was never afraid to fight battles against bureaucracy, and he did just that throughout five decades of government service.
McFadden an up-close eyewitness to some of nature’s greatest weather phenomena
One day while I was preparing to fly into the Caribbean’s Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, three graduate students studying hurricane science under the tutelage of Dr. Bill Gray of Colorado State University showed up unannounced and uninvited at our office and petitioned Jim to get on a hurricane flight. He took pity on these three naive grad students and bumped a news crew to allow them on the next available flight.
That was on September 13, 1988, when Gilbert “bombed” out into the most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded up until that time: a mighty category 5 storm with 185 mph winds and a central pressure of 888 mb.
As we prepared to leave for the mission, I asked Jim if he got any pushback for kicking off the media people in favor of the students. He grumbled that yes, his bosses weren’t happy about it, but by putting those students on the flight, he’d be doing more for hurricane science than any public relations we could ever get from reporters’ coverage. Judging by the subsequent careers of those three students – Dr. Chris Landsea (chief of NHC’s Tropical Analysis and Forecasting Branch), Dr. James Kossin (hurricane scientist for the National Centers for Environmental Information), and Steve Hodanish (senior meteorologist at the Pueblo Weather Forecast Office) – few could question that outcome.
A witness to nature’s most spectacular weather phenomena
Jim had the great fortune of seeing perhaps the most incredible diversity of weather phenomena of any person in history. During downtime between missions, or during long ferry flights to and from base, he often reminisced about spectacular sights he’d seen — the light from a full moon shining down inside the eye of a spectacular category 4 hurricane, colorful sunsets seen from the air, and rare views of the green flash or a full 360-degree rainbow.
Jim also happened to be on two of the most truly terrifying flights ever survived by a weather research aircraft, both done in NOAA’s P-3 aircraft N42RF (affectionately called Kermit).
The first of these was into Hurricane Hugo of 1989, for which I was the flight meteorologist. My story, “Hunting Hugo: The Hurricane Hunters’ Wildest Ride,” recounts our ill-fated decision to penetrate the most intense portion of Hugo’s eyewall at 1,500 feet, thinking the hurricane would merely be a category 3 storm.
During the final minutes before eyewall penetration, when we were belted into our seats given the turbulence, Jim tried to alert us that he thought we should abort, since he didn’t like what he saw on radar. Unfortunately, the mike on his headset didn’t work, and he couldn’t communicate his thoughts. Hugo turned out to be an intensifying category 5 hurricane, and an engine of the P-3 caught fire during extreme turbulence exceeding five Gs. We plunged out of control toward the ocean before popping into the calm eye at 880 feet, where the pilot was able to pull us out of our descent and extinguish the fire in the engine.
I was not aboard Jim’s second near-fatal flight, which occurred in February of 2007 during the Ocean Winds Project, which was designed to test the accuracy of surface wind estimates of the QuikSCAT satellite in regions of high wind and heavy rain. The P-3 measured ocean surface winds with its Stepped Frequency Microwave Radiometer and dropsondes at the same time that the QuikSCAT satellite was measuring winds using its scatterometer.
As recounted in my 2007 article, “Giving thanks to the Hurricane Hunters and QuikSCAT scientists,” the last mission of the project was flown into a hurricane-strength winter storm over the waters about 500 miles southeast of Newfoundland. That mighty storm packed winds of 100 mph, and sea spray kicked up by the winds reached all the way to flight level (3,000 feet), coating the plane’s engines with a thick white layer of salt. During their final sampling run, there was a shout over the intercom, “Fire on number three, flames, flames, flames!” when the chief engineer saw flames coming out of an engine accompanied by loud popping noises.
They immediately performed an emergency shutdown of the engine. While they did so, there was another cry of, “Fire on number four!” when the number four engine began spewing flame and making popping sounds. They were forced to do an emergency shut down of that engine, too. Not able to maintain altitude with two engines out on the right wing, Kermit turned toward home base in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and the crew was notified to review their ditching placards and don their survival suits. The pilot contacted Canadian Air Force search and rescue, which launched a C-130 aircraft from Nova Scotia to intercept. Crews on the Hibernia and Terra Nova oil rigs east of Newfoundland stood by to help if necessary, and Kermit’s navigator continuously plotted vectors to the oil rigs in case a ditch near one became necessary.
Three tense minutes passed as they attempted to figure out what had caused the two engine failures. They speculated that the unusually heavy accumulation of salt on the engines caused the failures. While they were trying to figure things out, the words they really dreaded to hear came over the intercom: “Fire on number one!” The number one engine began spewing flame, forcing its emergency shutdown, and Kermit began a 700-foot-per-minute descent towards the ocean below, with only one engine operational. The navigator issued a mayday call, notifying air traffic control of their latitude and longitude. But at night, with the frigid waters of the North Atlantic in a hurricane-strength storm with 30 to 40-foot waves, the odds of survival were miniscule.
The pilot called for an emergency restart of the number one engine. While the flight engineer worked to restart it, they passed through an intense rain shower that washed much of the salt from the airplane. The restart of the number one engine succeeded, and the pilot pulled Kermit out of its descent, just 800 feet above the ocean. They then managed to restart the failed number three and four engines while the plane slowly climbed away from the ocean surface, making it back to Newfoundland without further misadventures.
A Hurricane Hunter until the end
After leaving the Hurricane Hunters in 1990 to pursue a Ph.D. in meteorology and later becoming a co-founder of the Weather Underground website, I’d periodically run into Jim at conferences or exchange emails with him. Every time we’d communicate, he’d gleefully exclaim, “No plans to retire yet!” As he explained it, “My job combines three things I like most: the weather, travel, and airplanes. Why should I retire? I’ve got the best life.”
Jim recorded an oral history interview about his career in January as part of the celebration of NOAA’s 50th anniversary. Learn more about his life and career here.
Posted on October 1, 2020.