Keesler's 'Hunters' Fly With Hurricanes

  • Published
  • By Susan Griggs
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
As the midway point of hurricane season approaches, the Hurricane Hunters of the 53rd Reconnaissance Squadron here remain vigilant about tropical weather threats.

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

Since 1944, the mission of the Hurricane Hunters has been to recruit, organize and train people to perform aerial weather reconnaissance.

The Hurricane Hunters take to the skies to collect data from areas where it's impractical or impossible to operate ground observation stations, or where weather satellites can't 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 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 in support of the National Center for Environmental Prediction. These missions can be just as challenging as hurricane missions, with turbulence, lightning and icing, according to Maj. Christa Hornbaker, an aerial reconnaissance officer.

"The past few years we've been to Alaska to collect information in the northern Pacific, which has been especially helpful in El Nino years - they have some pretty hefty storms," she commented. "Also we fly missions off the East Coast if they're expecting a potent 'nor'easter' to develop."

So far this summer, the busiest time for the Hurricane Hunters was the nine-day period from birth to landfall of Hurricane Claudette, which trekked across the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico before coming ashore July 15 along the Texas coast.

Other missions so far this year investigated three tropical depressions, as well as four named storms: Tropical Storm Ana, which developed April 21-24 before the official beginning of the season June 1; Tropical Storm Bill, which dumped 4.62 inches of rain on Keesler June 29-30; Hurricane Danny, which swirled in the north central Atlantic Ocean July 16-20; and Tropical Storm Erika, which came ashore Aug. 16 near Brownsville, Texas.

"Mid-August through October is generally the busiest time of the season for us," said Lt. Col. Val Hendry, an aerial reconnaissance weather officer who's been assigned to the unit since 1985.

A unique aspect of this year's mission for the Hurricane Hunters was the deployment of more than 100 squadron members for tropical storm reconnaissance duty at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. Mobilized April 18, the team returned to Keesler June 10.

Last year, forecasters predicted that Super Typhoon Pongsana would miss Guam, but the storm's center crossed directly over the island and caused major damage to Air Force facilities.

"This year, we had some valuable assets in that theater, and there were concerns about typhoon threats to people and property," said Major Hornbaker, who made the trip. "Satellites and computer models are valuable tools for forecasters, but our (airborne) input has been shown to improve forecast accuracy by up to 25 percent."

Accurate forecasting can save both lives and property, said Lt. Col. Doug Lipscombe, training officer for the squadron's aerial reconnaissance weather officers. Today, a typical hurricane warning costs an estimated $192 million due to 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.

"Any way we can increase the accuracy and decrease the economic impact is a plus," Colonel Lipscombe stressed.

The Hurricane Hunters have 10 WC-130H aircraft with computerized meteorological data-gathering equipment to cover up to five storm missions per day. There are currently eight WC-130J aircraft, with five in place on the ramp. The newer J model is being used this year for "synoptic tracks," which involve flying at high altitude around the storm to map out the steering winds, as well as some testing in the storms.

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

Hurricanes are comprised 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.

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

As the storm strengthens, the WC-130s enter a storm 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 doesn't fly over the storm, but right through the thick of the weather to collect the most valuable information from the eye of the storm.

This information, processed and encoded aboard the aircraft, is transmitted by satellite directly to the National Hurricane Center in Miami to provide the most accurate measurement of the storm's location and intensity.

"This season we have some newer instrumentation," Major Hornbaker said. "Our dropsondes have been upgraded with global positioning systems, and we're able to process more information. These improvements have allowed us to do successful drops in the eyewall, which we previously couldn't do."

She added the Hunters missions have lead to new discoveries about eyewall structure that has helped the center in Miami upgrade its hurricane model.

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

Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., and Patrick AFB, Fla., are alternate locations for the Hurricane Hunters in the event a storm hits the Gulf of Mexico near Keesler. (Capt. Krista Carlos, Kunsan Air Base, Korea, contributed to this report.)