ARWOs: The Flying Meteorologists

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

Storm tracking is not just a one person job. The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, also known as the "Hurricane Hunters", assigned to the 403rd Wing here, is made up of about 120 individuals and is the only flying unit in the world tasked with a full-time aerial weather reconnaissance mission.

The flying mission itself is split up among five different aircrew members: the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, weather reconnaissance loadmaster, and the flight meteorologist, also known as the aerial reconnaissance weather officer. When it comes to determining where to locate the best data during storm flights, the aircrew turns to their subject-matter expert: the ARWO.

The Hurricane Hunters fly ten WC-130J aircraft equipped with meteorological data-collecting equipment and are responsible for flying storms in the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the central Pacific Ocean. Once hurricane season ends, the squadron flies winter storm missions off the East and West Coast of the U.S.

According to Capt. Douglas Gautrau, 53rd WRS ARWO, once the aircraft enters a storm, the ARWO often acts as the flight director, coordinating information between the pilot and other aircrew members to guide the plane to the best possible spots along their flight path for gathering storm data.

"You need to be able to think fast," said Captain Gautrau. "When you're flying around in a storm at 180 knots, you need to make sure you have a good understanding of how things work within the storm so you can determine the best direction to take for collecting data."

The ARWO is mainly tasked with observing and recording meteorological data collected at flight level and from dropsondes. The dropsonde is a weather instrument package dropped from the aircraft into the storm that relays current pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, and global positioning system information to instruments on the plane.

"You also want to get the wind speed and direction at the level you're flying and also at the surface (of the water)," said Capt. Christopher Dyke, 53rd WRS ARWO. "And you want to get the lowest central air pressure so that forecasters can determine the storm's strength, intensity and direction."

"We're constantly sending out data to the National Hurricane Center (in Miami), staying in constant communication with them and giving them status updates," said Captain Gautrau.

The data collected is then sent to the NHC via satellite communication, where it is fed directly to NHC computers and made instantly available to forecasters for analysis and to the public.

Even though the ARWOs are collecting massive amounts of information on the storms they fly, they leave the interpretation of that data to the forecasters on the ground.

"That's one main thing to note, we don't do any forecasting," said Capt. Tobi Baker, 53rd WRS ARWO. "Our primary job is observation and data collection. For us, the airplane is like an observation platform, where we're collecting storm data on a horizontal level, while the dropsondes give us pinpoint data from a vertical standpoint."

The information gathered by the ARWOs helps forecasters narrow down the possibilities in predicting where the storm will make landfall. This is very beneficial to the public for helping people make informed decisions and to local governments for determining areas that need to be evacuated.

"One of the biggest benefits (of the mission) is being able to provide eyes-on information to the forecasters so that they can keep the public informed," said Captain Dyke. "Our data helps improve forecasts up to 30 percent, so that's a big advantage that we can provide to the public. That's the big thing, I think, helping to protect people and property."