In 1997, the Tropical Prediction Center (TPC) began operational Gulfstream-IV jet aircraft missions to improve the numerical guidance for hurricanes threatening the continental United States, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. During these missions, the new generation of Global Positioning System dropwindsondes were released from the aircraft at 150–200-km intervals along the flight track in the environment of the tropical cyclone to obtain profiles of wind, temperature, and humidity from flight level to the surface. The observations were ingested into the global model at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, which subsequently serves as initial and boundary conditions to other numerical tropical cyclone models. Because of a lack of tropical cyclone activity in the Atlantic basin, only five such missions were conducted during the inaugural 1997 hurricane season.
Due to logistical constraints, sampling in all quadrants of the storm environment was accomplished in only one of the five cases during 1997. Nonetheless, the dropwindsonde observations improved mean track forecasts from the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory hurricane model by as much as 32%, and the intensity forecasts by as much as 20% during the hurricane watch period (within 48 h of projected landfall). Forecasts from another dynamical tropical cyclone model (VICBAR) also showed modest improvements with the dropwindsonde observations. These improvements, if confirmed by a larger sample, represent a large step toward the forecast accuracy goals of TPC. The forecast track improvements are as large as those accumulated over the past 20–25 years, and those for forecast intensity provide further evidence that better synoptic-scale data can lead to more skillful dynamical tropical cyclone intensity forecasts.