Hurricane Hunters prepared for hurricane season takeoff

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Christopher Carranza
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

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

The Hurricane Hunters’--as they are more commonly referred to—mission, as it relates to tropical disturbances, is to collect weather data from within storm environments and send that information to the National Hurricane Center for forecasters to plug into their weather models for better forecasting predictions. The tools necessary to gather this data ranges from hardware and software inside and out of their weather configured WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft.

“Every season we recalibrate equipment and one of the critical components in preparing for the upcoming storm season are Stepped-Frequency Microwave Radiometer calibration flights,” said Maj. Kendall Dunn, 53rd WRS assistant chief pilot. “Each aircraft has a SFMR, and flights are conducted over the gulf, starting at 28,000 feet and going down to 1,000 feet for calibration.”

The SFMR is an instrument designed to continuously measure the winds at the ocean's surface directly below the aircraft. As the plane flies through a storm, the SFMR senses microwave radiation emitted from foam created on the sea by winds at the surface. Computers then determine wind speeds based on the levels of microwave radiation detected. The SFMR can also determine rainfall rates within a storm system.

In addition to the SFMR, each WC-130J has the Aerial Reconnaissance Weather Officer data system, weatherbird software, communication navigation identification unit, satellite communication system, advanced vertical atmospheric profiling system, and dropsondes, which are ejected from the bottom of aircraft to collect pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction.  

Dunn said that aside from the training and calibration flights, unit members normally prepare themselves and their families for the upcoming season by taking time off while they can.

“We try to take time off with our families when we can because once it gets busy we do not stop,” said Dunn. “We also go over our evacuation plans in case our families have to leave the area.”

The Hurricane Hunters have 10 WC-130J Super Hercules in their inventory, which enables them to have the capability to fly three storms simultaneously. During the 2020 Hurricane season the unit flew, Genevieve, Laura, and Marco at the same time.

“This past year we reduced our exposure to each other in order to prevent negatively affecting our readiness. COVID restricted us to teleworking and social distancing, but we still had one of the busiest hurricane seasons on record,” said Dunn. “As a squadron, we’re excited to see COVID restrictions being lifted so we can get on the road and do our congressionally directed mission.”

The Hurricane Hunters stay busy throughout the year due to conducting Winter Storms in the northeastern side of the nation and atmospheric river missions out West over the Pacific.     

“This year we are looking forward to having more areas for forward deploying locations and freeing up manpower with COVID restrictions lightening up,” said Lt. Col. Kaitlyn McLaughlin, 53rd WRS chief meteorologist. “Despite having fairly low manning last year, we were able to get some reservists fully mission qualified, which means we will be better off this year compared to last.”

McLaughlin said that at one point they had every available ARWO on a storm tasking and when it seemed mission failure was inevitable a traditional reservist was able to answer the call.  

She and Dunn both referenced Hurricane Zeta, which rapidly intensified into a Category 3 hurricane before making landfall in southeast Louisiana. They said that people should be prepared for any storm, because they can rapidly intensify and have immense destructive power. 

“When I am flying and collecting data, especially during a rapid intensification of a storm, my heart goes to those who are going to be affected, and I fear for those who do not evacuate,” said McLaughlin. “The data we collect is critical to the model forecast and people really need to be cognizant and prepared for any potential storm that may affect your area.”

The overall goal is to save lives and infrastructure through warnings and advisories generated by the collected data.

“This is one of the only missions that you get instant feedback and it’s rewarding to see the information that we gathered from a flight immediately update a forecast,” said Dunn. “We’re the only military unit that flies this mission and it gives a very high sense of job satisfaction. With that, these storms are no joke, so when the advisories say to evacuate, you really need to leave.”