Air Force Hurricane Hunters

Flying into the Eye of the Storm

••• The WC-130J Hercules aircraft is used by the Hurricane Hunters at Keesler Air Force Base. Official USAF Photo

Hurricane season begins on June 1. As this date approaches each year, the 53rd Reconnaissance Squadron "Hurricane Hunters" at Keesler Air Force Base, MS remain vigilant about tropical weather threats.

The Hurricane Hunters are part of Air Force Reserve Command’s 403rd Wing. They are the only Department of Defense organization still flying into tropical storms and hurricanes on a routine basis.

It all started in 1944 as a barroom dare, when two Army Air Corps pilots challenged each other to fly through a tropical storm.

On July 27, 1943, Maj. Joe Duckworth flew a propeller-driven, single-engine North American AT-6 "Texan" trainer into the eye of a tropical storm. Duckworth flew into the eye of that storm twice that day, once with a navigator and again with a weather officer. These were generally considered to be the first airborne attempts to obtain data for use in plotting the position of a tropical cyclone as it approached land. Duckworth's pioneering efforts paved the way for further flights into tropical cyclones.

The 53rd WRS was originally activated in 1944, as the 30th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Gander, Newfoundland. Its original mission was to fly weather tracks between North America and Allied Western Europe. Since that time, the Hurricane Hunters have had many designations and called many airfields home.

From Gander, the squadron moved south to New Hampshire and then on to Florida. In late 1947, the Hurricane Hunters moved across the Atlantic to Kindley Field, Bermuda, later relocating at Burtonwood Royal Air Force Station, England, and Dharan, Saudi Arabia.

The squadron returned to Bermuda for a short time, and then back to the United States at Hunter AFB, Ga. In 1966, the 53rd WRS once again left the United States, this time for Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico. When Ramey closed in 1973, the Hurricane Hunters came to their present locations at Keesler AFB, Miss.

In June of 1991, the 53rd WRS was deactivated, and all weather reconnaissance responsibility fell to the Air Force Reserve's 815th Weather Squadron, which had existed concurrently with the 53rd since 1976. Then on Nov. 1, 1993, the 53rd WRS was reactivated and assigned to the Air Force Reserve, replacing the 815th WS.

To perform their mission, the Hurricane Hunters have 10 WC-130J aircraft. These Hercules aircraft are equipped with palletized meteorological data-gathering instruments. The WC-130J is the next generation "Hurricane Hunter" designed to continue weather reconnaissance well into the 21st century.

The Hurricane Hunters take to the skies to collect data from areas where it is impractical or impossible to have ground observation stations, or where weather satellites cannot provide complete information.

During the hurricane season from June 1 to Nov. 30, the Hurricane Hunters provide surveillance of tropical disturbances and hurricanes in the western Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico for the National Hurricane Center in Miami. They may also fly missions for the Central Pacific Hurricane Center in Honolulu.

From Nov. 1 through April 15, the unit also flies winter missions off both coasts of the United States supporting the National Center for Environmental Prediction.

These missions can be just as challenging as hurricane missions, with turbulence, lightning, and icing.

Accurate forecasting can save both lives and property. A typical hurricane warning costs an estimated $192 million in preparation, evacuation and lost commerce.

Narrowing the warning area lends greater credibility to forecasts and enables more controlled and limited coastal evacuations. As coastal populations continue to grow, evacuation decisions need to be made earlier. Some areas already require more than 48 hours to clear in advance of a major hurricane.

When conditions are favorable for hurricane development, Keesler’s flying weather crews move into action.

Hurricanes are composed of dense thunderstorms with severe turbulence and heavy rain. A solid ring of thunderstorms called the eyewall usually surrounds the eye.

This is where the strongest winds are commonly found. Sometimes the clouds and rain are so thick the aircraft’s wing tips are barely visible. By contrast, the eye is comparatively calm and virtually cloud-free, officials said.

The first investigative missions are flown at low levels between 500 and 1,500 feet. They determine if the winds near the ocean surface are blowing in a complete counterclockwise circle and also pinpoint the center of this closed circulation, the first stage of a developing tropical cyclone.

As the storm strengthens, the aircraft enter the area at 5,000 to 10,000 feet, choosing higher altitudes as the storm becomes more severe. The tops of the storm clouds may reach 50,000 feet, so the aircraft does not fly over the storm, but right through the thick of the weather to collect the most valuable information from the eye.

The information collected from instruments aboard the aircraft and from small canisters dropped by parachute is sent directly to the National Hurricane Center in Miami by satellite to provide the most accurate measurement of the storm’s location and intensity.

Each of the weather missions averages about 11 hours and can cover nearly 3,500 miles.

The 53rd WRS has authorized 20 aircrews. Fifty-nine unit members hold air reserve technician positions. The rest of the squadron is made up of Air Force Reservists.

WC-130Js carry a basic crew of five: pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight meteorologist and weather reconnaissance loadmaster. The pilot, who serves as the aircraft commander, and the co-pilot man the flight controls. The navigator keeps track of the aircraft's position and movement and monitors radar to avoid tornadic activity. The flight meteorologist acts as flight director and observes and records meteorological data at flight level using a computer that encodes weather data every 30 seconds. The weather reconnaissance loadmaster collects and records vertical meteorological data using a parachute-borne sensor known as a dropsonde. It measures and encodes weather data down to the ocean surface.

Co-located with the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Fla., is a small group of Air Force Reserve civilian personnel, assigned to the 53rd WRS. The supervisory meteorologist of the unit serves as Chief, Aerial Reconnaissance Coordination, All Hurricanes, better known as CARCAH.

These personnel are responsible for coordinating Department of Commerce requirements for hurricane data, tasking weather reconnaissance missions, and monitoring all data transmitted from weather reconnaissance aircraft.

Charleston AFB, S.C., Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., and Patrick AFB, Fla., are alternate locations for the Hurricane Hunters if a storm hits the Gulf of Mexico near Keesler.

Much of the above information courtesy of the Air Force Reserves.