Vömel’s plane flew about 10,000 feet above Earth. Other weather planes fly much higher.
The Global Hawk is an unmanned aircraft used by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The 48-foot plane flies 60,000 feet (11 miles) above Earth. It has five scientific instruments on board.
Because it operates without people onboard, the plane often spends 24 hours in flight. That’s about three times longer than a propeller plane can fly. “This means we can observe the entire storm as it develops,” says Gary Wick, a physicist at NOAA.
Amber Emory, a meteorologist at NASA, has worked with the Global Hawk program since it began in 2009. So far, the collected data has resulted in “a big increase in our ability to forecast a hurricane accurately,” she says.