Flight Journal: A hurricane hunter sortie into Hurricane Ian

Back a few weeks ago when Hurricane Ian was savaging the coast of Florida I decided to see what a couple of years of improvements to weather modeling in Microsoft Flight Simulator had given us when it came to large scale storms. Taking the King Air 350i into the storm, just as I had done with Hurricane Laura back in 2020, I wanted to see what the experience would be like. Here’s how that went.

A savage storm

Large and destructive, Hurricane Ian went from a tropical storm near Jamaica into a category 3 storm in a matter of just 24-hours before further strengthening to a very powerful category 4. It’s at this strength that it made landfall on the western coast of Florida. The scenes of damage that we’ve seen in its aftermath has been intense and the storm has caused 137 fatalities across multiple states and countries.

I think it’s important to understand the scale of the real world destruction before examining this from a more detached flight sim perspective. My thoughts are with everyone affected by this storm and by the folks in Nova Scotia who took a heavy hit from Hurricane Fiona just days before Hurricane Ian hit Florida.

From Key West to the storm

Flying into the storm about less than a day before landfall, Hurricane Ian at this point was a strong category 3 and perhaps a category 4. I decided my base of operations would be Key West (KEYW) International located on the very tip of the Florida Keys archipelago. I have scenery for this airport and it was located at a good spot to get quickly into the storm.

As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one who had the idea as dozens of other players were also flying out of here to see what they storm was all about.

Conditions were poor at Key West. A strong crosswind made itself immediately felt on takeoff roll and I found myself crabbing into the wind just to maintain some semblance of direction immediately after takeoff.

I then made use of the King Air 350i’s powerful turboprop engines to climb away rapidly and punch a hole in the clouds. Emerging up around 10,000 feet into clearer skies, it was clear where the storm was with thick clouds bursting up out of the lower cloud layers off to my right.

In the cockpit, the glass panel display gave me a reading of a 43 knot headwind and a 58 knot crosswind as I climbed through 15,000 feet. This was certainly the highest numbers that I’ve seen in this sim to date.

At this point I became aware of a frame rate drop. No weather conditions that I’ve seen in Sim Update 10 have caused a frame rate drop with the exception of this storm. I believe the weather engine was attempting to read the scale of the storm and generated an absolutely massive cloud which lowered visibility at around 25,000 feet.

Eventually I got passed this and my frame rates shot back up again.

It’s around this time that I believe that I entered into a kind of eye-wall like structure that the weather model seems to have attempted to generate. Previously I struggled to find an eyewall and with this storm it was similar to my past attempts. Still, I think this was by far the most convincing that I’ve seen. Very interesting to experience.

Then it was time to get out of the storm so I set course back towards Florida.

I emerged from the storm clouds just as the sun set. I arranged for a landing at KSFB Orlando Sanford International Airport and came in for a relatively smooth landing on runway 9L. And only then did I exhale a long breath… that was an intense flight.

Weather observations

Back in 2020 when I tried the same flight with Hurricane Laura, MSFS was new and the weather model was still having trouble with things like winds. This time around we’re playing with Sim Update 10 and the various weather systems really injected a lot of interesting wind into the mix that weren’t there previously.

The wind gusts nearly knocked my airplane over on takeoff at Key West making for a very hairy takeoff. I hand flew part of the flight working hard to keep the King Air 350i flying straight. It was certainly not smooth as turbulence and wind gusts knocked the airplane all over the place. The sound effects of the aircraft shaking and shuddering just added to the hair raising nature of the experience.

I continue to be astounded by the people who fly the real hurricane hunter aircraft into these storms enduring heavy turbulence and difficult flight conditions for hours at a time. I remain firmly aware that I was doing this from the comfort of my home office. No barf bags required.

It’s worth noting that icing on the airframe and windows was somewhat reduced from the last time (having been considered overdone previously) but still an issue requiring management.

This is the most convincing that MSFS has been with its real time weather modeling and it was a very intense flight to experience.

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