Hurricane Hunters pull double duty

  • Published
  • By Jessica L. Kendziorek
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

The Hurricane Hunters departed Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, today to take on their fourth winter storm mission tasking of the 2020-2021 season flying along the Atlantic coastline.

The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, or Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters, have been flying Atmospheric River missions supporting the Pacific Coast since Jan. 15, and today local crews at Keesler are undertaking the third type of weather mission that the Hurricane Hunters are responsible for: winter storm missions.

“During the winter storm missions we operate at higher altitudes, similar to those you would fly in a commercial airliner,” said Capt. Ryan Smithies, 53rd WRS pilot. “For this particular winter storm mission we will be flying the Eastern seaboard, from the Carolina’s up to Cape Cod and up to 100 miles outward.”

Despite their name, they don’t have an off-season because, the winter storm mission season covers the period of Nov. 1 to March 31 before hurricane season even ends, while hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30 every year, and when they aren’t flying weather missions they are training.

“We are tasked by the National Centers for Environmental Prediction,” said Lt. Col. Kaitlyn McLaughlin, 53rd WRS Chief Aerial Reconnaissance Weather Officer. “The mission is scheduled to last over 10 hours and these East Coast storms can sometimes rapidly intensify as they go over the Gulf Stream, which is over water where there is no available data.”

Much like hurricanes, dropsondes are released from the WC-130J Super Hercules by the loadmaster and the weather data consisting of pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, and GPS position is sent back to the aircraft with the weather data that is collected and sent back for use in forecast models.

However, instead of sending the collected data to the National Hurricane Center, information gathered during a winter storm is sent from the aircraft to the National Centers for Environmental Prediction which, like the NHC, is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“The mission we are flying right now is affecting the New England Coast, with snow and heavy winds,” said McLaughlin. “The data we gather by releasing dropsondes is used to gain a vertical profile of the atmosphere and that data is injected into the next model run in order help the forecasters with landfall, snow amounts, and wind speeds.”

During hurricane season the Hurricane Hunters normally operate at 10,000 feet, sometimes less, through major tropical systems, storms and hurricanes to collect weather data. While the area is considerably a more turbulent area, the size is smaller than the area covered during a winter storm or atmospheric river mission.

“Winter storms cover a much larger piece of real estate over the ocean, so there’s a lot less data available,” said Smithies. “So we are trying to fill in the data gap both horizontally and vertically, so our mission is to try to paint a picture of what the atmosphere looks like in real time, where there is no data available.”

With the Hurricane Hunters flying winter storms and providing the weather information, NCEP is able to use the data as a supplement to data already collected from other means to predict the forecast of a storm and therefore to better inform and prepare those in its path.