Seventy-four years ago today, Leonard Povey climbed into the cockpit of a tiny fighter plane and went in search of one of the most powerful forces ever to roam the Atlantic Ocean.
Povey found his quarry in the Straits of Florida – the storm that became the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, still the most powerful to make landfall in the United States. It was almost certainly the first time that an airplane was used to track a hurricane. But Povey’s historic flight has been forgotten.
Povey was an American who was a flight instructor for the Cuban army air force. He was based in Havana. Cuban authorities decided to send Povey in search of the hurricane because there were conflicting predictions about its position and forecast track. The U.S. Weather Bureau – the predecessor to today’s National Weather Service – said the storm’s center was just off Cuba’s northern coast and would make landfall at or near Havana. But barometers in Havana were rising, an indication that the hurricane was moving away from that city.
“Conflicting reports of Havana observers kept the capital in jitters most of the day,” the Havana Post, an English-language newspaper in the city, reported in its edition of September 3, 1935. “One of the reports said that the hurricane would strike here at 6 p.m.”
So on the afternoon of Monday, September 2, 1935, Povey was dispatched to locate the storm.
The Post said that Povey made his flight in an “army pursuit plane.” He confirmed that the hurricane had turned to the north and was moving away from Cuba and toward the Florida Keys.
The Associated Press wrote about Povey’s flight a few weeks later, and the story was published by newspapers in Florida, including the Miami Herald. The story, published in the Herald on September 23, 1935, included a few quotes from Povey about his flight.
“I was unable to fly close to the disturbance, visible to me for miles,” Povey said. “It appeared to be a cone-shaped body of clouds, inverted, rising to an altitude of 12,000 feet. The waves in the sea below broke against each other like striking a sea wall.”
Povey didn’t try to fly into the hurricane’s eye, as hurricane-hunters do today.
The storm’s eye made landfall a few hours later at Long Key, Florida. Its lowest recorded barometric pressure reading at landfall was 26.35 inches, or 892 millibars, making it the most intense hurricane on record for the U.S. The storm’s winds – thought to have been around 200 mph – and its storm surge of 18 feet or more devastated a 40-mile section of the Keys from Tavernier to Marathon and killed more than 400 people. The death toll included about 260 World War I veterans who were working on a New Deal construction project building a highway between Miami and Key West.
Povey suggested that airplanes be used to monitor hurricanes. But there’s no indication that anyone followed up on his suggestion. In 1944, however, military pilots based in Texas flew into a storm in the Gulf of Mexico. By that time, Povey’s pioneering flight had been forgotten, and the 1944 flight is regarded as the first time an airplane was used to track a tropical storm.