The BeginningSince 1944 the United States Navy (USN) and the United States Air Force (USAF) had been flying reconnaissance missions into tropical cyclones, to help warn civilians as well as military personnel of approaching typhoons and hurricanes. Robert H. Simpson, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, had used these operational reconnaissance missions to take scientific measurements of hurricanes. But it wasn't until 1954, when Hurricanes Carol, Edna, and Hazel swept up the eastern coast of the United States (Hazel went directly over Washington, D.C.), that policymakers took the hurricane threat seriously enough to finance such research. Congress in 1955 authorized additional funding for the United States Weather Bureau (USWB) to create the National Hurricane Research Project (NHRP) which was to conduct research into hurricanes in hopes of improving scientific understanding of them, which in turn would improve forecasting.
Simpson was appointed Director of the twenty-two person Project and in one year he had the operational headquarters set up at the West Palm Beach, Florida airport. USAF loaned three aircraft and their crews to the effort, and on August 13, 1956 the first NHRP flight was made into Hurricane Betsy off the Turks and Caicos Islands.
The USAF aircraft used in the first three years of the Project were a B47 jet and two B50 ex-bombers, which were instrumented to take temperature, humidity, and pressure measurements and punch them on computer cards, and an on-board radar scope, which was photographed at regular intervals. Researchers were initially interested in describing the three dimensional structure of hurricanes and in observing the middle and upper level winds which were thought to steer the storm. Over the next several years an experiment was carried out in which a balloon-borne radio beacon was released in a hurricane's eye and the wind center was tracked remotely.
The Project was also involved in setting up upper-air stations around the Caribbean, and in installing WSR-57 radars in American coastal locations. There was a program of photographing hurricanes from low flying rockets that was soon made obsolete by the introduction of weather satellites. 1958 was the most productive year of this era, with twenty-three missions being flown, and important papers being published on mean atmospheric soundings, hurricane rainfall distributions, storm surge surveys, and radar descriptions of hurricane structure. At the end of that hurricane season the USAF offered to transfer their aircraft to the Project outright. But a Commerce study found it would be more economical to lease their own aircraft and hire and train their own personnel. Simpson left the Directorship to obtain a doctorate, and then become Director of Project STORMFURY, and Cecil Gentry became the new NHRP Director.
A year later the Project was moved south to the Miami Aviation Building, co-locating it with the Miami hurricane forecast office. These two organizations became known as the National Hurricane Center (NHC). At this time they shared facilities with both the USN and USAF Hurricane forecasters in a Joint Hurricane Warning Center. Eventually the name 'NHC' was used only to refer to the forecast office. The Project's acquisition of an IBM 650 computer at this time not only allowed for quicker processing of field data, but facilitated the first attempts at numerical modeling of hurricanes.
There was a hiatus in field research activity until 1960 when NHRP's two leased DC6 airplanes were instrumented and available. Later that season a B-57 jet, on loan from the Air Force was made operational. In 1961 NHRP's Flight Operations Group (the aircraft, crews and their ground support) were split from NHRP into a separate organization, the Research Flight Facility (RFF). This organization would eventually become NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center (AOC). The Project's researchers were left to focus on collecting and interpreting the data, while RFF's personnel concentrated on aircraft maintenance and operations.
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