'Hurricane Hunters' kept relentless watch on 2012 storms

  • Published
  • By Amaani Lyle
  • American Forces Press Service
As the nation rebounds from 19 named storms and 11 major hurricanes in 2012, a small but hardy military organization keeps relentless watch to track and prepare for such disasters.

Located at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, dubbed the "Hurricane Hunters" of the Air Force Reserve, is the Defense Department's sole organization dedicated to flying into tropical storms and hurricanes. The unit has performed the mission since 1944.

In a "DOD Live" bloggers roundtable today, Lt. Col. Jon Talbot, 53rd WRS chief meteorologist, and Capt. John Brady, a meteorologist with the squadron, said collecting winter storm, hurricane and tropical cyclone data for the National Weather Service is critical in mitigating loss of life and property.

Typically, a winter storm mission begins only if the weather system will have a large, societal impact somewhere in the United States, Talbot explained.

"Winter storms kill more people than hurricanes do," Talbot said, noting his team's specialty in analyzing data over water, where information is sparse. "If the National Weather Service is seeing a lot of uncertainty in their , they'll contact our liaison team."

Talbot and Brady oversee 20 flight meteorologists responsible for acting as mission directors aboard the fleet of 10 WC-130J reconnaissance aircraft and crews from the 403rd Wing, also based at Keesler. The weather experts collect and relay information such as storm center and intensity, known as models or numerical predictions, to the Miami-based National Hurricane Center.

"Over the open waters of the Pacific and Atlantic, there's nothing out there for the models to ingest, so we get extra data to pump into the model," Brady said. "The forecast accuracy can go up 15 to 20 percent just by gathering that data."

But winter-storm tracking missions in the Northeast and Northwest corners of the United States, Talbot said, differ from conventional hurricane tracking. These are high-altitude missions, usually at 30,000 to 34,000 feet, that supplement data from an upper-air balloon

"It's not an active environment [as with] a hurricane, where you're right in the middle of it [because] you're a lot lower," Talbot said.

Brady agreed and explained the squadron's use of dropsondes -- small, expendable, parachute-like meteorological devices that collect information and send the coded data back to weather trackers.

"Our goal is to fly as high as possible and drop our weather dropsondes at predetermined points to measure the atmosphere ... and get that information to the National Weather Service so they can increase the forecast accuracy for developing winter storms," Brady said. "The longer they flew, the lighter the aircraft got due to less fuel, so they were able to get higher and higher with each one." Hurricane Hunters, particularly in the Atlantic basin, often fly a day or so ahead of a weather system before its main impact, he added.

The data can even provide rescuers an immediate, life-saving advantage, Brady said, relating a recent example of collaboration with the Coast Guard. In October 2012, Tropical Storm-turned-Hurricane Rafael caused heavy rains and formidable gusts that thwarted rescue efforts for two men and one woman whose twin-engine Piper Aztec aircraft crashed near St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Coast Guard rescue crews called on the Hurricane Hunters, who were in the area and were able to spot from high above an oil slick and aircraft debris. Although the other two passengers perished, the woman was rescued, thanks to the Hurricane Hunters' ability to identify and relay critical coordinates of the survivor's location.

"[The Coast Guard] took over and ultimately did find the rest of the debris and one female survivor still clinging to life," Brady said. "I'm sure she was extremely grateful to see some folks coming to get her, [and] that's just one example of how we can intercoordinate with the different branches through search and rescue."

After Hurricane Katrina crippled the Gulf Coast in 2005, Talbot said, the use of instruments such as remote wind sensors now enable the team to provide even greater detail about how winds are likely to affect a coastal area when a hurricane comes ashore.

"We're able to map the entire area under a hurricane," Talbot said. "During Katrina, we had only one or two airplanes [with that] instrument installed, and now we've gone to the entire fleet."

Talbot added that being able to map the area under a hurricane is a "gigantic benefit" for not only forecasters at the hurricane center, but for the local emergency management workers assessing how and where to evacuate people. The colonel also noted that collaboration with the National Hurricane Center and National Weather Service likely will pave the way to develop future capabilities such as enhancing radar and satellite communications to better track real-time hurricane changes.

"NASA has flown over hurricanes using ... high-altitude Global Hawks outfitted with special instrumentation," Talbot said. "We're trying to get to a point where we can develop [similar] remote sensors."

Still, mission requirements, Talbot noted, ultimately will be defined by the needs of the Hurricane Hunters' main customer, the National Weather Service's National Hurricane Center.

"[What we do at] the 53rd [WRS] and the Air Force Reserve has always been a great mission for us," Talbot said. "We're proud to be able to help mitigate the cost and protection of lives during hurricanes and we look forward to continuing this mission proudly."