Weather recon still kickin'

  • Published
  • By Mr. Miles Brown
  • Air Force Weather Agency Public Affairs
For more than 60 years, brave Air Force weather men and women have flown on routine, and not-so-routine weather reconnaissance missions to protect the people of our nation from the ravages of tropical cyclones - wherever these storms form. That is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the varied missions of Air Weather Reconnaissance. 

Weather Recon has a long and varied past from around the world. 

Before the day's of satellite and radar images, weather professionals climbed into long-range bombers specially equipped to monitor atmospheric conditions and radio weather reports to coastal bases and ships at sea anytime severe storms were looming just over the horizon. 

"Back when I started flying in Weather Recon, we flew in a WB-29," said Richard Hall, a dropsonde operator from 1956 to 1975. "We would fly daily routine weather recon tracks to cover as much area as possible. We were looking for any type of weather that might impact military operations in the area - tropical cyclones, ice storms, dense fog, etc."
According to Mr. Hall, the routine recon missions were not the best part of the job. It was the unique or special missions that really interested him, and kept him coming back for more. 

Weather crews flew weather research missions at high altitude and gathered data on icing, lightning or whatever other weather related issues needed to be evaluated. But the best and most exciting flights were, and probably still are today, flying into tropical cyclones. 

"I was in one of the last recon aircraft to take-off and fly into Hurricane Camille in 1969," Mr. Hall recounts. "We made the final location fixes and intensity measurements just before that storm made landfall." 

They measured a barometric pressure of 905 mb. This was one of the lowest barometric pressure readings ever measured by aircraft up to that time. Only two super-typhoons in the Pacific - Ida in 1958 (873 mb), and Marge in 1951 (895 mb), had lower barometric pressure reading measured by aircraft. Sustained winds of Camille were 190 mph as the storm approached the Mississippi coast. 

In the case of Camille, as with many of the hurricanes before 1970, residents of the mainland United States would have little idea where, and with what intensity these storms would strike the coast if it were not for weather recon missions flying directly into the brunt of these monstrous cyclones. 

"When I started tracking and measuring hurricanes, there weren't a lot of satellite images - and none were used to measure intensity or estimate the track of the storms," said Bill Davis, a dropsonde operator form 1965 to 1977. "Most of the satellite images would just give us a good idea where the storms were and which angle to fly in and make our measurements." 

The aircraft have been updated from the WB-29s to today's work horse, the WC-130J. The mission may have evolved over the years; weather recon crews are prepared to fly an average of 11 hours crisscrossing storms and penetrating powerful eyewalls several times each mission. The aerial reconnaissance weather officer and weather reconnaissance loadmaster use computers to gather data. Sensors on the aircraft and dropsondes collect wind speed, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure and other information forecasters use to determine the path and strength of a hurricane. The critical mission of today's weather recon teams is still the same - protecting lives and assets anytime anywhere.