It started as a dare during WWII, a fearless officer took an AT-6 Texan training aircraft into the eye of a hurricane. The proud heritage of the Hurricane Hunters goes back over 50 years. The B-17 Flying Fortress was the most often requested aircraft for weather reconnaissance in WWII. In 1945 the first full squadron intentionally flew directly into an active hurricane. It was then that the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron became the Hurricane Hunters.
Planes were scattered all over the world and at the ready for the Hurricane Hunters to use. During it’s infancy, the unit scouted the weather over large geographical areas…there were no such thing as satellites back then. Each day, the squadron planes collected data that was transmitted to weather stations. The information was then used to prepare weather reports required for the Air Force and the United States Weather Bureau. In the process of deciding which aircraft was best suited to fly the Hurricane Reconnaissance missions, several different kinds of planes were put to the test over the years. After much trial and error, the WC-130 Hercules became the aircraft of choice. They have proven to be the most dependable, and crews could penetrate a hurricane without geting soaked by the torrential rain.
In 1975, the Air Force Reserve joined the prestigeous team and the Storm Trackers were born. A tactical airlift squadron located down the street from the original 53rd batallion began sharing the brunt of the hurricane missions. They quickly became well respected assistants to the active duty 53rd. Unfortunately, budget cuts made it impossible for the 53rd to continue in 1991, so the Air Force Reserve picked up the entire hurricane hunting mission. The 815th squadron took over in a dual role and flew both storm and tactical airlift (cargo) missions. However, by 1993 the unit split into two squadrons which changed the status quo yet again. Finally, the weather squadron was reformulated and the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron was back in full force and proudly carries the tradition as the Hurricane Hunters we know of today.
The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron is aligned under the 403rd Reserve Wing located right here at Keesler AFB in Biloxi. Tropical reconnaissance is governed by the National Hurricane Operations Plan. It specifies that the 54rd WRS will support 24 hour a day continuous operations and have the ability to fly up to 3 storms at a time, with a response time of 16 hours. There are ten full-time aircrews and ten who work part-time. The part-time team are often in the civilian sector, holding a wide array of jobs. Training takes place a couple of times every month, and recon missions are flown when they are available. In addition, the support personnel, such as those that work in flight administration. life support, and various maintenance specialties keep the Hurricane Hunter aircraft ready to go around the clock.
There is a five person crew on board each WC-130J. They include the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, aerial recon weather officer (ARWO) and a Weather Loadmaster. When a storm begins to form, the National Hurricane Center will send the 53rd out to investigate the direction of the winds; are they blowing clockwise or counterclockwise? The mission is flown from 500 to 1500 feet above the surface of the ocean. Waves are constantly monitored in order to determine wind speed and direction from the sea state. The low level wind and pressure fields provide an accurate picture for the Hurricane Center Forecasters. As soon as there is a defined circulation within a disturbance, the mission becomes what is known as a “fix” mission.
At this time, the ARWO directs the crew to the true center of the storm. A very specific pattern is used in flight to gather the necessary information. It is called the alpha pattern and it is repeated two times during one mission. Weather data is continuously collected during the mission and sent via satellite directly to the National Hurricane Center. Major hurricanes are entered at 10,000 feet (catagory 3 or greater). The eyewall is penerated by a weather instrument called a dropsonde. It will determine the maximum winds at the surface and another “sonde” is released directly in the eye to detect the lowest pressure at the surface. This instrument behaves like a weather balloon, but it falls rather than going up. Once the instruments exit the eye, the ARWO creates a vortex message that includes the exact latitude and longitude of the center, as well as maximum winds, maximum temperature and minimum pressure.
Every mission requires two pilots, one is the aircraft commander and the other is the co-pilot. The commander is in charge of all crew members and makes sure the mission is on time and performed with the utmost control and safety. These pilots are trained to do what every pilot is trained NOT to do, which is fly into severe weather conditions. The navigator is responsible for preparing a navigational flight plan. He or she prepares all charts for the flight and makes a full inspection of all navigational equipment before the flight ensues. Radar is closely monitored and during flight the navigator can determine exactly where the aircraft is at all times. The Aerial Reconnaissance Weather Officer acts as the Flight Director when in the storm environment. Atmospheric data is continuously monitored from the aircraft sensors that comes in literally every second. The ARWO will use this information to guide the crew right to the center of the storm. Last but certainly not least, is the Weather Loadmaster. The “load” has two jobs. Everything must be loaded and tied down properly in the cargo compartment. The exterior of the aircraft must be scanned during the start of the engines, as well as constant monitoring of the entire plane during flight. All engines and all systems are inspected. During a weather mission, the Weather Loadmaster is also responsible for collecting vertical weather profile data, using the dropsonde.
At this very moment as this article is being written, the Keesler Air Force Base Hurricane Hunters are conducting missions to investigate tropical storm, Debby that is building strength in the Gulf. South Mississippi residents are keeping a watchful eye as Debby intensifies and could possibly threaten our area. We owe the Hurricane Hunters a debt of gratitude. Thanks to their bravery, dedication, and commitment to protect mankind when mother nature unleashes her fury, we are all safer and more in control of our fates. The Hurricane Hunters save lives. Go To Places Monthly is extremely proud to honor the incredible men and women who comprise this illustrious team of heroes.