As Hurricane Fiona continues to drop heavy rain and moves north after battering Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and most recently Turks and Caicos, the Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron Hurricane Hunters continue to fly the storm while it remains a threat to land.
The squadron began flying the storm after moving to their forward operating location in Curacao, Sept. 15, when the system was just a tropical storm.
"Because of the location of the storm, Curacao was our safest and best option for flying Fiona,” said Lt. Col. Phillip Dobson, 403rd Operations Group navigator and mission commander for Fiona’s operations. “Also, by moving closer to the storm we can essentially fly more ‘fixes’ into the storm environment.”
A fix mission is typically flown into a storm from 5,000 to 10,000 feet and the weather officer directs the crew to try to locate the center of the storm or "fix it's center". This accomplishes in finding three things: direction, speed, and intensity of the storm.
“Each time we go through the storm and "fix it", it is like placing a marker at the storm's center of the eye, in-turn where the storm is located,” said Lt. Col. Tobi Baker, 53rd WRS aerial reconnaissance weather officer. “As we pass through the storm’s center, we drop sondes to take a core sample of the atmosphere from our flight level all the way down to the ocean surface.”
These measurements and information from the aircraft aid in finding the basic aspects of the storm direction, speed, and intensity. This provides better environmental data for the models to use in both track and intensity forecasting.
Assigned to the 403rd Wing, the 53rd WRS is the only unit of its kind in the Department of Defense. They work in coordination with the National Hurricane Center and the Chief, Aerial Reconnaissance Coordination All Hurricanes, to fly missions into tropical systems and collect atmospheric data, which is used by forecasters to create more accurate models.
To accomplish their mission, the squadron has 10 WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft, that contain two specially modified weather stations inside the aircraft for the weather missions, the aerial reconnaissance weather officer station and the dropsonde operator station and tube. The information collected during the flights is sent to these two stations, which is then sent back to the NHC via satellite, where they take the data and put it into their models for more accurate, up-to-date forecasts.
After a total of 12 storm missions, the 53rd WRS wrapped up their last flight out of Curacao, Sept. 21 and moved operations to another forward operating location in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.
“By moving to St. Croix, we can use our equipment and keep operations going,” said Dobson. “We will continue flying as long as required to complete our mission and gather the data, because at the end of the day, people need this information to be prepared.”
While the Hurricane Hunters continue to fly Fiona, they are also scheduled to begin flying into the suspect area located to the east of the southern Windward Islands, which has the potential to develop into a tropical depression.