Half a century ago, the journalist Edward R. Murrow climbed into a modified bomber aircraft and rode it straight into the eye of Hurricane Edna, a storm that eventually slammed into Massachusetts and killed 20 people. Murrow’s flight was with the Air Force Weather Service, and the next day he recounted the experience in gorgeous, vivid detail for his radio audience.
For eight dazzling minutes, he describes ghostly gray light, mountains of clouds, and the ocean in “long irregular furls like a drunken plowman had been plowing a field of blue velvet and turning up snow.”
A favorite grad-school professor of mine found a tape of Murrow’s account in a forgotten box in the basement of a university decades ago. After she played it for me and my classmates, I thought about it so often I finally requested a copy. (Thank you, Professor Donohue!) Now, every time a hurricane is forecast, I think of Murrow.
I’ve asked CBS if it’d be okay for me to share the audio here. In the meantime, here’s a full transcript of Murrow’s glorious account.
“We took off from Bermuda at 11:30 a.m. in the specially equipped B-29. The Air Force boys were working for the taxpayers; going out to chart, measure, map, and study the hurricane. We climbed to 10,000—blue sky overhead, blue water without a single whitecap below—and headed west. For about an hour and a half, there was nothing to do except remember that flying is made up of many hours of boredom, interspersed with a few minutes of stark terror.
“Then, there were a few whitecaps but no cloud. Then, the whitecaps grew in size, surface wind about 30 miles an hour, a few scattered cumulus clouds ahead. One big cloud seemed to summon its neighbors and they built castles and lakes and cities on hillsides, all white against the blue of the sky. We bored through a few and skirted others. Then, there was a big mountain of clouds ahead, and we went in. A few rain squalls, but little turbulence. The texture of the cloud changed, became a sort of ghostly gray. We couldn't see the wingtips of the aircraft. Twenty minutes later, there was a little blue-gray light, but it seemed to come from all around us, above and below. Suddenly, blue water again. No whitecaps, but the ocean was heaving and undulating as though a giant were shaking a rug.
“Into another cloud, out on the other side, and the ocean had changed its face. Long irregular furls like a drunken plowman had been plowing a field of blue velvet and turning up snow. We went down to 7,500. Surface winds now estimated at about 60 miles per hour. Flew right along the top of a flat cloud with the feeling that if the pilot let his wheels down, he'd leave a track in it. The next time we saw water, the wind was cutting the tops off the whitecaps and there was a thin gauze of spray as far as we could see. Then, into the cloud again, and that ghostly gray light that seemed to rub off on the faces of the crew members and caused them all to look as though they were ill and hadn't slept for a long time.
“The radar kept reaching out, looking for Edna's eye. It showed a high bank of clouds to the right and to the left. We were flying blind in that gray stuff in the sort of valley between. Suddenly, there was a hole in the cloud, maybe a quarter of a mile across, and at the bottom there was foam. It was like looking down a deep well with a huge egg beater churning up milk at the bottom. We flew on.
“And then began the real search for the eye of the hurricane. There were sudden changes in temperature. More rain. Radar reported, the engineer reported. The navigator wanted to know if anybody could see surface wind. The radar scope didn't show anything. We were bounced around a little. The skipper said, ‘There's a storm around here somewhere, let's go find it.’
“The navigator asked for a turn to the left. And in a couple of minutes, the B-29 began to shudder. It was a twisting, tortured, wringing sort of motion. The co-pilot said, ‘I think we're in it.’ The pilot said, ‘We're going up,’ although every control was set to take us down. Something lifted us about 300 feet and then the pilot said, ‘We're going down,’ although he was doing everything humanly possible to take her up. Edna was in control of the aircraft.
“We were on an even keel but being staggered by short, sharp blows. Then we hit something with a bang that was audible above the roar of the motors. And more than one man flinched. It was a solid sheet of water. Seconds later, brilliant sunlight hit us like a hammer and a little rainbow spun off the starboard outboard prop. And someone shouted, 'There she is!' And we were in the eye. Calm air, flat calm sea below. A great amphitheater, round as a dollar, with great clouds sloping up to 25,000 or 30,000 feet. The water down below looked like a blue Alpine lake with snow-clad mountains coming right down to the water's edge. It was a great bowl of sunshine.
“Someone, I think it was the right scanner, shouted, ‘So help me, there's a ship down there!’ And there was. Right in the center of the eye. We guessed her to be a 10,000-ton merchant ship, moving very slowly in that calm water, with only a thin feather of wake behind her. She appeared to be in no trouble, but trouble was inevitable sometime, because she was surrounded by those cloud mountains and raging water.
“The eye was 20 miles in diameter. We went down to 1,500 feet and flew back and forth across it, making shallow penetrations of the storm area. The temperature went up 14 degrees. The altimeter said 4,000 feet but we were actually at 1,500. The civilian weather officer aboard looked at Edna with a clinical eye, and said, ‘She’s a copybook hurricane. Beautifully formed.’ We took her temperature, measured her speed, threw overboard scientific gear, which might help to chart her future movements, while we continued to fly around in the calm at the bottom of that funnel of white cloud.
“The eye of a hurricane is an excellent place to reflect upon the puniness of man and his work. If an adequate definition of humility is ever written, it's likely to be done in the eye of a hurricane.
“The engineer reported some trouble with No. 3 engine. We climbed up to 10,000 feet and bored into the wall of white cloud that surrounded the eye. It was not as rough going out as coming in because the navigator had picked his exit well. Going back to Bermuda, we talked of hurricanes. One of the pilots said, ‘We certainly were disappointed in Carol. We just didn't think she would do what she did.’ He had flown through Carol so often that he regarded her as a friend who had committed a major misdemeanor.
“These young men who fly the Air Weather Service are doing all that can be humanly done to provide information upon which adequate warning can be based. After all, the only thing you can do about a hurricane is to watch it, and study it, and then get ready for it. And to this reporter, after flying only nine hours with those young men of the Air Force yesterday, on a routine mission, I think they deserve combat pay.”