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On the chase with hurricane hunters

CNN's Jason Bellini
CNN's Jason Bellini aboard a hurricane hunter aircraft
Behind the Scenes

(CNN) -- Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news.

CNN correspondent Jason Bellini and producer Ben Blake boarded a hurricane hunter aircraft Sunday in Biloxi, Mississippi. Bellini kept this journal while flying into the eye of Hurricane Ivan.

Good morning Ivan

The hurricane hunter aircraft CNN producer Ben Blake and I boarded Sunday at 6 a.m. ET was a Vietnam-era hand-me-down. The supped-up C-130 can hold enough fuel to spend up to 13 hours in the air. A fuel tank holding 11,000 pounds of fuel now fills the space where jeeps, troops and weaponry once sat in their journey to Indochina.

Shortly after takeoff, we witness a stunning sunrise. The five journalists on board jockey for space at the window to take pictures with their work and personal cameras. Push may come to shove when we get into the hurricane's eye. Do you pull the I'm-with-CNN-and-you're-from-TV-market-173 card on them? Probably not. We're on this plane with them for at least another 10 hours. Plus, the woman from a Lake Charles, Louisiana, station could come back at me with the I'm-a-meteorologist-and-what-do-you-know-about-barometric-centripetal-dew-point-strata-ratios card. I'm trumped!

Into the great wide open

Our journey is long -- 13 hours -- and rough and boring. For much of the flight, we're asked to stay in our seats, buckled in, where we stare at the fuel tank. There's a no-smoking sign on the side of it. Good suggestion.

This is my third flight with the hurricane hunters, so some of the thrill is gone. That is until you get into the eye of the hurricane. One of the most surreal things I've experienced is seeing a wall of hurricane clouds forming a circle around you as you're flying through the eye. When the eye wall is well-defined, the hunters call this the "stadium effect." They say the fiercer the hurricane, the more majestic it is in the middle.

Unfortunately, from the standpoint of picture taking, the hurricane on this day is cloudy-eyed. Literally. The crew tells me the storm is still a Category 5, but that the eye is in a "re-cycling" phase. At least this is an environmentally conscious hurricane.


I predicted when Ivan was still a wee lad of a hurricane that TV news graphic creators eventually would dub it "Ivan the Terrible" as a banner for coverage. I was right.

During Hurricane Frances, which moved at less than 15 mph on its track toward Florida more than a week ago, I predicted someone would create a graphic that said "Slow-i-cane." I was wrong, thank goodness.

Ups and downs

We don't want gross, graphic pictures of people vomiting, but capturing someone on camera over a garbage can would really help illustrate just how rough the turbulence is when flying through a hurricane. You might not believe us otherwise. As I'm writing this, we're doing some stomach-in-your-esophagus ups and downs. Ben, get the camera ready.

By the end of the flight, the only person to "hurl-i-cane" was our Air Force public affairs escort. I think he's more of an on-the-ground type. I had to lie down after starting to feel green from some intense up-and-down turbulence on our last pass through the hurricane. I forgot my Ipod, and there was no way I was going to read or continue watching a DVD. All I could do for the last four hours of the flight was concentrate on not becoming ill.

The British view

Blake, who has done more than 700 parachute jumps in his 24-odd years of life, pointed out to me that cruising through Cuban airspace and going straight into a hurricane are "pretty high on the list of things you would ordinarily want to avoid doing" while flying through the Gulf of Mexico in a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance aircraft. He's British. British people say those kinds of things.

Another round

After the flight, we drove to New Orleans to feed our story about the trip. We are staying overnight in a hotel in the French Quarter. Guess what we're drinking as we end the day walking down Bourbon Street. ...

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