Abstract Over the years, hurricane track forecasts and storm surge models, as well the digital terrain and bathymetry data they depend on, have improved significantly. Strides have also been made in the knowledge of the detailed variation of the surface wind field driving the surge. The area of least improvement has been in obtaining data on the temporal/spatial evolution of the mound of water that the hurricane wind and waves push against the shore to evaluate the performance of the numerical models. Tide gauges in the vicinity of the landfall are frequently destroyed by the surge. Survey crews dispatched after the event provide no temporal information and only indirect indications of the maximum water level over land. The landfall of Hurricane Bonnie on 26 August 1998, with a surge less than 2 m, provided an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the potential benefits of direct airborne measurement of the temporal/spatial evolution of the water level over a large area. Despite a 160-m variation in aircraft altitude, an 11.5-m variation in the elevation of the mean sea surface relative to the ellipsoid over the flight track, and the tidal variation over the 5-h data acquisition interval, a survey-quality global positioning system (GPS) aircraft trajectory allowed the NASA scanning radar altimeter carried by a NOAA hurricane research aircraft to demonstrate that an airborne wide-swath radar altimeter could produce targeted measurements of storm surge that would provide an absolute standard for assessing the accuracy of numerical storm surge models.