2017-09-13 / Front Page

Letcher County native was first to fly through eye of hurricane

By BEN GISH


LCDR Fields LCDR Fields A Letcher County airman made history 70 years ago this week when he led the first flight ever into the eye of a hurricane — forever changing the way tropical storms are predicted and measured and helping to cement the term “hurricane hunters” that remains in use today.

On September 13, 1947, Lieutenant Commander Archie Reid Fields, who was born and raised in Whitesburg, was the leader of a 10-man Navy air team that boarded a modified four-engine PB4Y Privateer bomber in Puerto Rico and made a harrowing flight through winds of more than 140 miles per hour before becoming the first airplane to reach the “inner eye” of a hurricane.

The name “hurricane hunters” was first applied to military flight crews such as the one led by Fields after an Air Force weather reconnaissance flight in 1946, one year before Fields’s historic flight. Hurricane hunters received widespread publicity just this past weekend as publications such as the Washington Post documented their flights into Hurricane Irma to gather information that was critical in helping the National Hurricane Center predict the storm’s track and strength.

The fact that Fields and the other nine crewmen nearly lost their lives in an unnamed hurricane — considered at the time as “one of the worst ever recorded” — was documented the very next day in newspapers all across United States by a reporter accompanying the flight crew.

“Terrifying” was the word the reporter, Milton Carr of the United Press, used to describe the flight, during which the plane came within 250 feet of crashing into the sea.

“We battled the ugly, black, doughnutshaped monster for more than two hours in one of the Navy’s most powerful fourmotored planes,” Carr wrote in his report, carried in publications ranging from the Miami Daily News to Time magazine. “For at least five heart-stopping minutes, I was sure the storm had won.”

Fields, the son of a prominent Whitesburg attorney, served as the flight’s aerologist. In addition to directing the other crewmen, including the pilot and copilot, he was also responsible, in the words of Carr, for giving “a running description of the hurricane into a wire recording outfit” that weathermen would later play back to “learn more about what makes hurricanes tick.”

The Indianapolis Star later reported that Fields used two microphones during the historic flight, one for shouting directions to the crew through the plane’s intercom system and the other connected to the wire recorder. According to the Star, the following exchanges took place between Fields and the other crew members:

Speaking into the recorder at 7:30 p.m. that Saturday, more than an hour after takeoff, Fields announced that plane and crew “are rapidly approaching the center. Wind is 90 knots and we’re in the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced.”

Two minutes later, Fields spoke into the recorder and said, “We must be almost there. Wind about 100 knots. Equipment is shaking loose from its stowage. The wing tips are fluttering and there are tearing noises in the fuselage.”

“Do you think it will get any worse, Fields?” asked the pilot, Lieutenant Commander Janesheck. “I don’t think she can stand much more punishment.”

Fields then said, “It is now 1933 (7:33 p.m.) and we are approaching the eye of the hurricane. The wind is buffeting the plane so hard I can only estimate the velocity — possibly 110 knots. But we’re almost there! I can see the eye now. A faint glow. It’s like being in a long black tunnel and seeing the opening ahead.”

Another minute passed before Fields said, “It is 1934 and we are inside the eye. The air is smooth. The sun is shining through a thin high overcast. The light blinded us all momentarily. This eye is sort of a circular weather oasis about 30 miles in diameter.”

Fields’s near miss with the hurricane wasn’t his first brush of death since becoming a Naval officer. On February 1, 1943, two years after he graduated from the United State Naval Academy, then-Lieutenant Fields survived the sinking of the U.S.S. De Haven, which was bombed off the Solomon Islands by six Japanese war planes.

Fields, who was wounded during the attack, was able to swim safely to a raft after all six of the Japanese planes were shot down before the De Haven sank. Killed in the attack were 167 sailors, while Fields and 37 others were wounded. He was presented with a Purple Heart after the incident.

In 1949, Fields again was the subject of national attention after serving as technical advisor for the movie “Slattery’s Hurricane,” which was based on the 1947 flight and a story by author Herman Wouk, who later won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his 1951 novel “The Caine Mutiny.”

Fields was a brother to longtime Whitesburg attorney Emmett Fields. Born in 1917, he died in August 2005 at his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Fields also saw combat action during the Korean War.

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