53rd WRS flies first Pacific, Atlantic missions of the season

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kristen Pittman
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

The Air Force Reserve 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron’s 2022 hurricane season got off to a timely start as they flew their first fix missions of both the Pacific and Atlantic seasons this week.

As a suspect area developed in the Eastern Pacific, just west of southern Mexico, the National Hurricane Center, with the Chief, Aerial Reconnaissance Coordination, All Hurricanes (CARCAH), tasked the Hurricane Hunters starting May 28.

The WC-130J Super Hercules aircrews found a quickly developing system that became Hurricane Agatha, a category two storm that made landfall May 30 near Puerto Escondido, Mexico. According to the National Hurricane Center, its 105 mph winds made Agatha the strongest May hurricane to make landfall along the Pacific coast of Mexico since modern record keeping began in 1949.

“We were able to fly two missions into Agatha before it made landfall,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Rickert, aerial reconnaissance weather officer for the 53rd WRS. “That initial flight through Agatha was very turbulent—some of the worst turbulence I’ve experienced.”

He said the turbulence could be attributed to the process of rapid intensification from tropical storm to category two hurricane status. That intensification also made it difficult to locate the center of the storm, but they managed to penetrate the eye and gather important data as the storm made its way toward Mexico.

“The crew on the second flight experienced a much smoother ride and were able to make two passes through the eye before the storm made landfall,” said Rickert.

The 53rd’s mission is unique to the Department of Defense as they are the only unit that flies into tropical weather events for the purpose of data collection.

“Our purpose during hurricane season is to collect and quality check the data in storm environments before sending it, in-flight, to forecasters to inject into models and to try and pinpoint the true center of a storm,” said Capt. Garrett Black, aerial reconnaissance weather officer for the 53rd WRS. “We’re often flying in data sparse regions, so being in a storm for as long as possible closes the gap of information that satellites may not be able to determine.”

In order to support the National Hurricane Operations Plan and the National Winter Season Operations Plan, the squadron has 10 WC-130J aircraft modified with specialized pallets for the weather officer and a dropsonde operator, a stepped frequency microwave radiometer attached to the co-pilot side wing, and two external fuel tanks. A standard aircrew consists of two pilots, a navigator, an ARWO, and a loadmaster.

The mission types for NHOP vary from low-level invests at 500-1,500 feet to flights into more developed systems at 10,000 feet, often in what’s called an “alpha pattern” that allows crews to sample all four quadrants of a tropical storm or hurricane as well as the center.

As Agatha made its way across Mexico, weakening to tropical remnants as it reached the Yucatan Peninsula, forecasters shifted focus to those remnants’ chances for development in the Atlantic.

June 2, a day after the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season, a 53rd WRS crew was taking off once again, this time into Invest 91-L east of the Yucatan.

“For invest missions, we fly close to the surface, around 500 feet, in order to observe surface winds,” said Black, who was aboard that first Atlantic mission. “In those scenarios we’re looking to determine if there is closed circulation that would deem the system a tropical cyclone.”

Following the first mission, the National Hurricane Center upgraded the area of disturbance to Potential Tropical Cyclone One, which means that the system is not yet a tropical cyclone, but it poses the threat of bringing tropical storm or hurricane conditions to land areas within 48 hours.

As the system made its way toward Florida, the 53rd flew four more missions before the storm made its landfall June 4 in South Florida, bringing heavy rains to much of the region.

The storm finally lived up to its potential when, during the 53rd’s sixth mission, the aircrew recorded conditions justifying the upgrade of PTC1 to Tropical Storm Alex in the Atlantic Ocean early June 5.

While the season got off to a seemingly fast start, this year was the first time since 2014 that there was not a named storm in the Atlantic in the month of May.

“Regardless of how quickly or slowly a season starts, our focus is always on readiness,” said Lt. Col. Stephen Pituch, 53rd WRS commander. “We operate our weather reconnaissance mission year-round, so our aircrews, our commander’s support staff, our squadron aviation resource management personnel, our maintainers and other supporting agencies across the 403rd Wing, are all doing their part every day to make sure we’re able to support either the NHOP or NWSOP and, most importantly, the people living in affected areas.”

Currently, the final flight for Alex is scheduled for the morning of June 6.