Two Hats, One Job: The Hurricane Hunter Loadmasters

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Ryan Labadens
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs
This is part four of four in a series on the aircrew members of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron.

Two for the price of one - that's what the aircrew of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron gets for the crew members filling the weather reconnaissance loadmaster position. These Reservists perform a dual role for the storm missions flown by the 53rd WRS "Hurricane Hunters" here.

"The weather reconnaissance loadmaster is the mission specialist on the plane," said Chief Master Sgt. Rick Cumbo, 53rd WRS chief weather reconnaissance loadmaster. "Safety is our first job. Part of our responsibilities include pre-flight (checks), loading the plane and implementing emergency and safety procedures. Our secondary job - which is the aircrew's primary mission - is the weather mission."

This part of the mission involves collecting and recording meteorological data from an instrument called the dropsonde, a parachute-borne device that measures and encodes storm data as it drops toward the surface of the water. The dropsonde measures air temperature, relative humidity, barometric pressure, and wind speed and direction.

"As we fly through various types of storms - whether tropical or winter storms - the National Hurricane Center will task us to fly a particular profile and drop sondes in certain parts of the storm," said Master Sgt. Randy Bynon, 53rd WRS weather reconnaissance loadmaster. "So our job is to launch the sondes out of the aircraft, collect the data, analyze it to ensure it's accurate, and then transmit it via satellite to the Hurricane Center."

"All of the coordination for dropping the sondes is done between us and the ARWO (air reconnaissance weather officer)," said Senior Airman Danielle Ellis, 53rd WRS weather reconnaissance loadmaster. "They coordinate between the pilots and the navigator to get the plane where it needs to go, and then they let us know when to drop the sondes so we can collect and format the data they need."

"These sondes collect data twice every second - and with the new ones coming out it will be four times every second," said Sergeant Bynon. "Our typical storm drop starts about 10,000 feet above the surface, so it takes the sonde about four minutes to reach the water while it's transmitting. That's a tremendous amount of raw data that comes to the airplane."

During a typical mission, these Citizen Airmen can drop anywhere from 10 to 15 sondes, most notably at the eye wall and in the center of the eye. The data gathered by the Hurricane Hunters increases forecasting by up to 30 percent, which is very helpful for narrowing down the storm's projected path.

The taskings for weather reconnaissance loadmaster have changed somewhat over the years. When Sergeant Bynon joined the Hurricane Hunters in 1996, the position was called the dropsonde systems operator. At that time, the Hurricane Hunters were primarily flying the H model version of the WC-130 aircraft, which had an additional crew member called the flight engineer. The flight engineer was primarily responsible for pre-flight duties and maintaining certain aircraft systems.

After the weather squadron swapped to the more advanced WC-130J model in 2005, the flight engineer position was no longer required. The dropsonde systems operators took on much of the load previously handled by the flight engineers, and as such, the increased responsibilities brought about the change in job title from dropsonde systems operator to weather reconnaissance loadmaster.

"The biggest difference is that now we are air/land-qualified loadmasters. We're responsible for weight and balance, pre-flight, cargo loading and off-loading, and passenger briefings and safety," said Sergeant Bynon. "We still do the same weather job we used to do, but we don't have the weather training we did before. We just have a compressed weather school that we go through in-house for basic meteorology (and software and equipment training)."

Airman Ellis joined the Hurricane Hunters in 2005, just after she had completed her first year in college. She was the first recruit in the squadron to come in under the new weather reconnaissance loadmaster designation.

One of the aspects Airman Ellis said she enjoys most about flying with the Hurricane Hunters is the sense of family and camaraderie she has experienced with the people here.

"It's really nice that you know you're going to go somewhere with a group of people who you really enjoy being around and who you really enjoy flying with to get the job done," said Airman Ellis. "When I first got here, they made me feel very welcome. They watched out for me like I was a little sister to them, and that really meant something to me."