Hurricane Hunters: pilots fly storm missions

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Christopher Carranza
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

The 403rd Wing’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron based out of Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., is the only Department of Defense organization that flies weather reconnaissance.

This specialized unit of Reserve Citizen Airmen is at a minimum made up of a five-person crew consisting of a pilot, copilot, navigator, aerial reconnaissance weather officer, and loadmaster who is also the dropsonde operator.

Every mission requires two pilots, one being the aircraft commander and the other is the copilot, to handle the WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft. The aircraft commander is responsible for all crewmembers, their safety and overall mission accomplishment.

Hurricane Hunter pilots fly their weather configured aircraft in what is known as the alpha pattern, which is a series of left turns that helps the crew find the center of storm.

“Safety is the overall mission, whether it is safety on the ground or in the air, we’re doing our best to keep people safe,” said Maj. Kendall Dunn, 53rd WRS pilot. “The aircraft commander has the ultimate decision making power, but we do whatever we can to accomplish the mission and meet the requests sent by the National Hurricane Center.”

Prior to flying with the Hurricane Hunters, Dunn was a helicopter pilot with the U.S. Army National Guard. The Southern Miss alumni said that he’s enjoyed flying a fixed wing aircraft as compared to his rotary experience.

“Flying this workhorse (WC-130J) is a lot of fun and it’s reassuring to know the plane is so dependable that we can fly it repeatedly through hurricanes,” said Dunn. “This aircraft is like a tank, it’s been able to take on anything we have asked of it to do. It’s a testament to its capability and our aircraft maintainers sustaining its operability.”

Dunn has been flying with the Air Force Reserve since 2013, with more than 1,500 flight hours in the WC-130J and has been into more than 30 named storms to date.

“My most memorable storm mission was during tropical storm Arthur,” said Dunn. “Arthur had a mesocyclone in it, which is like an airborne tornado, and during some heart-pounding moments, we weren’t flying the plane—the plane was flying us. No matter what commands we put into the controls, we were under the mesocyclone’s power.”

According to the National Weather Service, a mesocyclone is a vortex of air, approximately 2 to 6 miles in diameter, within a storm. In a mesocyclone, air rises and rotates around a vertical axis, usually in the same direction as low pressure systems and is much larger than a tornado.

Working hand-in-hand with the aircraft commander is his partner who sits in the right seat. The copilot is fully capable of flying the Super Hercules and assists the aircraft commander in the decision making process during missions.

“As a copilot we fly the airplane, too, but we’re also still learning to fly in the storm environments, learning how to lead the storm mission safely and effectively, and continuing to build airmanship at the same time,” said 1st Lt. Ryan Smithies, 53rd WRS pilot. “The majority of copilots are younger or just new to the airplane in general. Our job is to keep flying and gaining that experience on the road to becoming aircraft commanders, many of which, have years of experience across multiple airframes.”

Smithies explained that learning the specifics of the WC-130J and assisting their leads helps build upon their own experience that will inevitably be passed onto the next generation of pilots. Many of those experiences being firsthand into storms.

“My most memorable storm mission was Humberto in 2019,” he said. “The flight was during the middle of the night over the Atlantic and we flew into the nastiest of weather, the lightning was insane.  I remember specifically the turbulence, it was very intense. Humberto gave me my first insight into how dynamic and unpredictable the storm environment can be. It definitely keeps you from becoming complacent.”

The Florida State alumni, has been a Reserve Citizen Airmen for 4 years, has approximately 700 flight hours in the WC-130J, and been in 10 named storms to date.

“Getting to fly the airplane is always fun, it’s an awesome plane unlike any other,” he said. “Having the opportunity to fly a unique mission that has a very visible impact on lives is a great and humbling duty.”

Smithies said he was hired by the unit as a traditional reservist. After completing his pilot training, he was selected for a developmental Air Reserve Technician spot, which is a full time position with the unit.

Both pilots said that flying weather missions are different every time, because each storm is different. They both agreed that each storm has its own unique personalities and challenges to overcome when traversing through the air.

The Hurricane Hunters pilot’s goal is to get the aircraft and its crew through their weather data collection mission and send that information to the NHC for forecasters to plug into their weather models for better forecasting predictions. The overall goal is to save lives and infrastructure through warnings and advisories generated by the collected data.

“I love what I do. There is no other job that I would rather have” said Dunn, “Providing a service on a national scale that the overall mission is to save lives is a great feeling.”