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Hurricane Irma bears down on Puerto Rico as lone flight races to get in and out of San Juan before storm hits

Thursday September 7, 2017 - 12:25 EST
ABC licensed image
This JFK-to-San Juan flight was in a race against mother nature. - ABC licensed

How would you feel boarding a plane that you knew was headed straight into the eye of one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century?

With Hurricane Irma hovering ominously off the coast of Puerto Rico, most flights were turning around.

But not this one.

Delta flight 431 decided to go it alone, racing from New York's JFK airport directly into the path of the storm for its destination: San Juan.

Aviation reporter Jason Rabinowitz tracked the tricky flight using FlightRadar24 and provided live commentary on Twitter.

With windspeeds on the ground picking up, the race was on to get a full flight to its destination on time.

Squeezing its way through the outskirts of the hurricane, flight 341 had a tricky landing ahead.

But they were prepared.

According to Delta, flight 431 arrived safely at 12:01pm (local time) to light rain. It recorded winds around 24 knots with gusts up to 31 knots — all these conditions are below safe operating limits for the 737-900ER.

Having made it through the storm, the pilot, crew and ground staff had yet another challenge ahead of them: unload all passengers and luggage, clean the aircraft, board a plane full of new passengers and get out of San Juan before Irma unleashed her worst on the Puerto Rican capital.

The plane managed a tight turnaround, with Delta recording flight 302 (the same aircraft's return journey) departing San Juan at 12:41pm — just 40 minutes after it landed.

There were 173 passengers on board.

Conditions were ramping up as the aircraft left San Juan, with winds buffeting trees at the airport and dark clouds hanging overhead.

The flight stuck to a gap between the hurricane's outer rain band and the centre of the storm to find open sky.

After clearing the hurricane, it was smooth sailing back to JFK, with the flight landing 39 minutes ahead of schedule.

Delta released a statement later on Wednesday praising its meteorology team as "the best in the business".

"They took a hard look at the weather data and the track of the storm and worked with the flight crew and dispatcher to agree it was safe to operate the flight," company vice-president Erik Snell said.

"And our flight and ground crews were incredible in their effort to turn the aircraft quickly and safely so the flight could depart well before the hurricane threat."


© ABC 2017

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