KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
In the Air Force, the number 341 typically elicits an unpleasant memory. Like that time someone in your group of three marching at basic military training forgot to put their cover on, so you all were vehemently reprimanded by a military training instructor and had your 341 pulled.
Or that time you failed to fill out all of your 341s in tech school, so your military training leader pulled one and denied your request to stay off base for the weekend.
The scenarios are endless, and usually traumatizing, but not for Chief Master Sgt. Rick Cumbo, loadmaster for the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, better known as the Air Force Reserve’s “Hurricane Hunters,” at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi.
For Cumbo, 341 was the goal, but not that tiny slip of paper.
Prior to the 53rd WRS’s departure from Keesler AFB to Barbers Point Airport Kapolei, Hawaii, the squadron’s record for eyewall penetrations in a hurricane, since it was kept track of in the 1980s, was held by now-retired Chief Master Sgt. Robert E. Lee.
In the Hurricane Hunters’ first flight into Hurricane Douglas July 24, Cumbo surpassed that record with his 341st eye wall penetration, or penny, as they are more commonly referred to. As the weekend went on, Cumbo racked up 10 more pennies putting him over the 350 mark.
In total, Cumbo has flown in 65 hurricanes. When asked what storm has been the most memorable, he said that at this point they all blend together, but that two standout.
Due to its size and the days it took to travel up the east coast before making landfall, Cumbo said 2012’s “Superstorm” Hurricane Sandy sticks out in his mind because of how many times he got to fly through it. Sandy alone accounted for 19 of his pennies.
The most memorable storm for him, though, occurred before he ever joined the Hurricane Hunters.
“Before I was in the military, I was living in Virginia close to the beach and I went out and surfed during Hurricane Gloria,” said Cumbo. “That was my first fascination with weather, and that’s why on active duty I went into the weather career-field.”
Cumbo joined the Air Force in 1988 as an active duty special operations weather technician, a career-field rife with rigorous training including jump school, basic survival school, and water survival training. As a SOWT he and his fellow team members were responsible for getting weather equipment into hard to infiltrate, potentially hostile areas.
Upon the end of his active duty service, he learned about the 53rd WRS “Hurricane Hunters” and set his sights on the Air Force Reserve.
Cumbo joined the unit in 1998 as a weather specialist serving in essentially the same capacity he does now as a loadmaster. In general, the loadmaster has their own pallet on the WC-130J Super Hercules equipped with a device designed to release dropsondes out of the aircraft. Cumbo communicates with the aerial reconnaissance weather officer throughout the flight to release the weather data gathering devices at the necessary locations in relation to a storm.
As the loadmaster, Cumbo is also responsible for making sure everything, and everyone, is secure on the plane as well as monitoring the engine start and health of the plane during the flight.
Cumbo has flown in at least one hurricane every year since 1999, with the exception of 2013 which proved to be a slow season. In addition to the longevity of his career, he said he is always available and ready to go should the squadron need him which has resulted in his prolific experience.
“I enjoy being a Hurricane Hunter because of the interaction with the crews, being on a C-130, and having a different mission,” said Cumbo. “It just means something growing up on the coast seeing how our data impacts evacuation areas saving lives and money.”
As for the future, Cumbo said he has about six years left before the Air Force’s age cutoff forces him to retire. He would like to reach 400 pennies before that time, but his motivation for his continued service derives from being available to support his unit and Airmen in any capacity he can.