For 2 planes, other duties

With three radars and break-through equipment to measure wind speeds, the WP-3D Orion is the nation's most advanced hurricane hunter plane.

Problem is, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has diverted the two $15 million planes for research missions unrelated to hurricanes, including an air quality study in New Hampshire during Hurricane Charley in 2004.

''That got to be very touchy when your bosses two levels up are allowing the aircraft to go fly off somewhere,'' said former Hurricane Center Director Bob Sheets.

Even when the planes are available, NOAA has granted only $186,000 this year for 80 hours of hurricane reconnaissance flight time, down from 100 last year. That's 10 flights at best.

Though the Hurricane Center regularly calls on the Air Force Reserve to fly its own hurricane planes, those planes don't have the same specialized equipment.

Donald Winter, who managed the planes for NOAA for two years, said he often busted his budget to accommodate forecasters.

''Everyone had to either cover for me or make me a scapegoat,'' said Winter, who retired in 1999. ''But it was too important for the American public not to have'' the planes.

NOAA also has a third hurricane hunter aircraft, the high-flying Gulfstream jet. It took hurricane forecasters more than a decade to get it, with former Director Sheets appealing to Congress himself when his bosses in NOAA resisted.

Had the Hurricane Center had the jet during Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Sheets said forecasters likely would have caught a full day earlier the high-pressure area that unexpectedly strengthened Andrew and pushed it west toward Florida.

''We probably would have had 24 hours more lead time,'' he said.

Forecasters say they now need a second jet to fly back-to-back missions, but so far, the Hurricane Center has not formally asked for one.