NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters have grounded the Gulfstream IV aircraft that flies over storms at high altitude to gather data.
The plane, nicknamed Gonzo, has suffered a series of three malfunctions in a period of eight days.
The Gulfstream is the only high-altitude aircraft in NOAA’s hurricane hunter fleet; there is no backup.
The recently passed Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act requires a second aircraft be available to "prevent a single point of failure."
With more than two months of the Atlantic hurricane season left, NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters have grounded the Gulfstream IV aircraft that flies over storms at high altitudes to gather data.
"Unbelievably, there is no backup," Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) told the Palm Beach Post. "I’ve sounded the alarm on this until I’m blue in the face. The administration simply must act."
The plane, nicknamed Gonzo, suffered a series of three malfunctions in a period of eight days, ABC News said. NOAA spokesperson Christopher Vaccaro told weather.com there was a problem with the fuel ignition system in one of the jet’s engines as well as a seal leak in the main cabin door that recurred twice.
As a result, the plane has been grounded for the third time, missing at least two planned missions into Hurricane Maria, the Palm Beach Post reported. Repairs could keep the jet grounded until Oct. 3.
"NOAA has taken no major steps to acquire reliable backup," Nelson wrote in an early September letter to NOAA’s acting head. "It is unacceptable that we again find ourselves in the midst of hurricane season without reliable NOAA aircraft reconnaissance and without backup capability."
That’s despite the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act passed in April, into which Nelson added language that requires a second aircraft be available to "prevent a single point of failure."
It’s unclear just how deep the problems run, but according to WFTS, the most recent door leak forced the crew to cut short a mission during Hurricane Maria while flying at 45,000 feet.
"The crew immediately ended the mission and returned to the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center," Vaccaro told weather.com. "The aircraft had completed 75 percent of its mission when it returned to base. The aircraft was able to maintain cabin pressure during the flight."
The Gulfstream is the only high-altitude aircraft in NOAA’s hurricane hunter fleet, the data from which the agency says has improved hurricane track forecasts by about 20 percent in recent years/p>
The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research occasionally loans NOAA its own Gulfstream aircraft, but Vaccaro told weather.com the agency is working on options to meet the hurricane hunter backup requirements of the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act.
"The safety of the American public and our flight crews are top priorities," he said, "and we take these requirements and our mission very seriously."