New Cuba talks may speed work of Tampa-based storm trackers
BY HOWARD ALTMAN
Tampa Bay Times
TAMPA – Storm trackers dash by plane from Tampa to measure the track and
intensity of tropical activity, but their work often is slowed by the
red tape required to fly over Cuba.
That may be changing with the normalization of relations between Cuba
and the United States, says the head of NOAA's Aircraft Operations
Center at MacDill Air Force Base.
NOAA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is seeking a
memorandum of understanding with the Cuban government that would give
the operations center blanket clearance to fly over the island nation,
said Capt. Michael Silah, who runs the center.
NOAA has long enjoyed good relations with Cuba, which doesn't refuse
overflights often, but Silah said a new agreement is important because
time is of the essence when tropical storms threaten.
"It can sometimes take three days to get an approval," he said.
"Sometimes that is three days we don't have."
In fact, NOAA sometimes skips the process altogether and just flies
around the island – a diversion that can add several hours to the mission.
"Those are hours that could be better spent inside storms gathering data
to help save lives," Silah said.
Silah, who has flown over Cuba as a pilot of one of NOAA's two P-3 Orion
propeller planes, said the agency began discussions about the agreement
about six months ago.
NOAA is working through the State Department, which declined to comment.
Efforts to reach Cuban officials were unsuccessful.
The move has the backing of two Florida Democrats in Congress: Sen. Bill
Nelson, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees NOAA
operations, and Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa.
"For decades now, the U.S. has shared meteorological information with
our international partners, including Cuba," Nelson said in an email to
the Tampa Bay Times. "So the quicker we're able to get a Hurricane
Hunter into a storm, the more beneficial it is to both countries."
Castor agreed, saying in an email, "Anything that can be done to improve
or streamline that access would be welcome as it could help keep my
Dialogue on developing an overflight agreement is a byproduct of efforts
by the Obama administration to improve relations with Cuba, Silah said.
But he sees it as more than a political issue.
"For us it is all about saving lives. And we think the data we develop
has value for the Cubans, just like it has for anyone in the Caribbean."
There is no timetable for any agreement with Cuba. It is possible that
if and when it is signed, the flights will no longer be originating from
MacDill because NOAA is moving the aircraft operations center to make
room for at least eight additional KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling
jets at MacDill.
The Aircraft Operations Center employs about 95 people and directs three
Hurricane Hunter aircraft – the four-engine P-3 Orions dubbed Miss Piggy
and Kermit and a Gulfstream IV jet known as Gonzo – as well as six
environmental monitoring planes.
The Orions fly into storms, collecting information about track and
intensity, and Gonzo flies above storms collecting data.
The center has been at MacDill's Hangar 5 since 1993. It must relocate
To make room, the NOAA operation has to be out by July 1, 2017. It is
now considering proposals submitted in April for an interim home for up
to 10 years.
St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, Lakeland Linder Regional
Airport and Sarasota International Airport have all submitted proposals.
Tampa International Airport did not submit one.
NOAA, which cannot comment on the proposals, expects to announce where
the aircraft operations center will go by Dec. 1, Silah said.
Contact Howard Altman at email@example.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow
Follow us on Twitter @InCubaToday.
Source: NOAA-Cuba talks may speed work of Tampa-based storm trackers |
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