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From top to bottom: WC-130H Hercules, WP-3D Orion, Gulfstream IV-SP
WC-130H photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. WP-3D photo courtesy of NOAA/Brad Smull. Gulfstream IV-SP photo courtesy NOAA/AOC

Why the Different Airplanes?

Why do the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron and the Hurricane Research Division use different airplanes? Actually, they only use two main types. The top two airplanes in the graphic, the WC-130H Hercules and the WP-3D Orion, are both turboprops. The bottom airplane in the graphic, the Gulfstream IV-SP, is a turbofan.

The difference between a turboprop and a turbofan is more than just a few letters. A turboprop is a propellor-driven aircraft. They are well-suited for the slower speeds and low altitude (between 1,000 and 10,000 feet) flying associated with hurricane penetration. Both the WC-130H and the WP-3D have four turboprop engines which allow them to stay in the air from 8-12 hours (the WP-3D) up to 15 hours (the WC-130H).

A better-known term for a turbofan engine is a jet engine. A jet isn't as economical as a prop at low altitudes and slow speeds but it is faster and more economical at higher altitudes. Because of this, the Gulfstream observes at a higher altitude (around 43,000 feet) around a hurricane. Also, the greater speed allows for a greater operating radius so the Gulfstream can record wind speed and direction away from the hurricane itself. This information is needed make the forecasted track more accurate.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF