There and Back Again: The Hurricane Hunter Pilots

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

Collecting storm information is just one part of the job for Reservists of the 53rd WRS "Hurricane Hunters." In order to gather all of the data on the hurricanes, winter storms and other weather systems the aircrews track, the Hurricane Hunters need to go wherever the wind takes them. And it's the job of the pilots and co-pilots to make sure they get there and back again.

Over the years, the Hurricane Hunter pilots have flown a number of variants of the WC-130 model aircraft, of which the most recent version is the WC-130J Hercules. While the plane can hold enough fuel to fly for almost 18 hours, most missions don't last nearly that long.

"A typical storm mission is anywhere from 10 to 12 hours, depending on where the storm is," said Lt. Col. Darryl Woods, 53rd WRS instructor pilot.

Once the plane reaches the storm, the pilots fly the aircraft in an alpha pattern, crisscrossing the storm so the aircrew can gather their readings.

"Basically you want to start either at the northeast, northwest, southeast or southwest corner of the storm," said Colonel Woods. "We'll pick one of those points 105 miles out and fly at 180 knots toward the center, usually at an altitude of around 10,000 feet. Once we break out through the eye wall, we drop an instrument to mark the center of the storm, then continue on that same heading another 105 miles to the other end."

Then the aircraft re-enters the storm from another corner to collect a second set of coordinates. This helps determine storm speed and direction.

Normally, depending on weather conditions and available fuel, the pilots try to fly at least two alpha patterns per storm (which comes to four eye wall penetrations).

Major Jeff Ragusa, 53rd WRS instructor pilot, has flown both with the Hurricane Hunters and the 815th Airlift Squadron "Flying Jennies," which flies the C-130J-30 stretch model. Both squadrons are attached to the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss.

Major Ragusa noted that one of the main differences between flying the WC-130J and the tactical aircraft is the added crew members, specifically the navigator and the aerial reconnaissance weather officer.

Another difference between the tactical and the weather birds is the addition of the weather instrumentation used on the WC-130J. Even though this equipment is essential for gathering storm data, it doesn't necessarily affect how the pilot flies the aircraft.

"Aircraft-wise, the difference with the sensors and gathering equipment is a non-issue for the pilot," said Major Ragusa. "Other than our interactions on the headphones with the weather officer, it doesn't affect the way the pilot flies of the airplane."

The equipment itself doesn't determine the aircraft's flight path; the interaction between the pilot and other aircrew members does. The pilot needs to coordinate with the weather officer to determine where and when to turn the plane in order to gather atmospheric data.

Major Brad Boudreaux, 53rd WRS instructor pilot and chief scheduler, said a lot of coordination goes on behind the scenes, both with the ground and the aircrew, training for, setting up and executing storm missions.

Because of the critical interaction that takes place between the pilot and the rest of aircrew, the additional training pilots receive mainly focuses on crew coordination skills.

"It almost becomes second nature, we train so much - and that's the intent," said Major Boudreaux. "All your weather training for the storm environment is done here. Essentially, we are the schoolhouse for the weather mission."

"A lot of people think that flying through a storm would involve horrible turbulence the entire time, and that's not the case," said Colonel Woods. "Most of the time it's the same as a rough airline ride, just moderate turbulence, although sometimes you can get rocked around pretty good."

"The airplane doesn't fly drastically different when it's flying through a hurricane," said Major Ragusa. "The real pilot training part involves learning what the other crewmembers are doing so that you can get that airplane where they need it to go (to gather storm data)."

Based on the data the aircrew gathers from the storms, Major Boudreaux said he believes the mission of the Hurricane Hunters is definitely worthwhile for the citizens of the Gulf Coast region and other area affected by these storms.

"Having grown up in southern Louisiana and living on the Gulf Coast, it's good to know in advance when a storm is coming so you have time to prepare and safely get out of town," said Major Boudreaux.

The data gathered by these Citizen Airmen help forecasters increase their accuraccy by up to 30 percent, narrowing down the projected storm path.

"It saves money, it saves resources, it saves time--and the biggest thing is, it saves lives," said Colonel Woods.