For over half a century, American aircraft have patrolled the tropical waters of the North Atlantic Ocean tracking and probing the great tropical storms we know as hurricanes. During that long stretch, only one reconnaissance aircraft and its crew have been lost. In Stormchasers: The Hurricane Hunters and Their Fateful Flight into Hurricane Janet, David Toomey chronicles that ill-fated mission led by Navy Lieutenant Commander Grover B. Windham into the teeth of Hurricane Janet as it swirled in the Caribbean during September 1955. Drawing on Navy documents and interviews with squadron members and relatives of the crew, Stormchasers reconstructs the mission of Windham's eight-man crew from preflight checks to their final transmission.
In telling the tale of the doomed mission, Toomey skilfully blends the rise of meteorological science and storm warning efforts along the American Atlantic Coast with the story of the men aboard the hurricane hunter aircraft dubbed Snowcloud Five. Toomey's treatment of the story contains much interesting historical and scientific material on weather and severe tropical storms with supporting background as to the reason the US military was so involved with weather reconnaissance. In this regard, Stormchasers reminded me of Herman Melville's Moby Dick in which the history and operational details of the whaling industry are interspersed with the fictional story of Ahab's quest for the white whale.
While reading this book, however, I wanted to compare it to Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, for both books portray crews facing the worst weather the Atlantic can throw at them. But such a comparison would be unfair to both books, for the situations were totally different. The crew of the Andrea Gail faced the "Perfect Storm" by chance, having been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and their ordeal likely lasted several days before all were lost. In contrast, the crew of Snowcloud Five intentionally entered the eye of Hurricane Janet's wrath, keeping in constant contact with base until communications ceased, and most likely died the day they left base.
Since I read a final draft copy of the book rather than a release version, I was reluctant to pick at technical errors in the text. However, the first I encountered made my hairs stand at attention. It arose from my pet peeve of incorrectly converting a Celsius temperature change into a Fahrenheit scale change. The passage reads: "Earth's average temperature would rise by 10o Celsius (50o Fahrenheit)..." No, NO, NO! A 10 Celsius degree rise is an 18 Fahrenheit degree rise!
Another erroneous statement tells us that the storm named "Maria" in George Stewart's classic novel Storm was a hurricane when in fact it was an intense extratropical storm. And, there has never been to my knowledge a Journal of American Meteorology (a likely misprint of the American Meteorological Society's Journal of Meteorology). Finally, the Australian name for a hurricane-type storm is willy-willy not a willy-nilly. Hopefully these will be corrected for the released version of the book.
Such simple errors of fact made me a bit nervous as I read Toomey's interpretations (he is not a scientist) of the historic growth of our knowledge of tropical storms and meteorology over the past two centuries. Since I have not read many of these original works, I cannot judge the reporting of their findings.
I enjoyed reading Stormchasers. The science and history interludes flowed well around the main story line. The story itself will fit well with the recent renewed American interest with unsung heroes. Overall, Stormchasers is a good read and should find a place on the reading list of the non-fiction, weather-disaster genre that includes The Perfect Storm and Isaac's Storm. Perhaps, we will see Stormchasers on the big screen in the future.
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD
THE WEATHER DOCTOR
May 15, 2002
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