53rd WRS supports Hurricane Lisa, Atmospheric River reconnaissance

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

Colloquially referred to as the “Hurricane Hunters,” the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron does in fact “hunt” hurricanes and tropical systems in all stages of formation during the Atlantic and Pacific hurricane seasons. While this keeps the squadron alert from mid-May to Nov. 30, they are responsible for supporting a variety of weather reconnaissance efforts from Nov. 1 to March 31 as well.

The multi-mission capable 53rd WRS supported the National Hurricane Operations Plan and the National Winter Season Operations Plan this week with flights into Hurricane Lisa up until it’s landfall in Belize Nov. 2, and with its first Atmospheric River mission of the season taking off Nov. 4.

Aircrews departed Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, late last week to St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, to begin reconnaissance missions into what would become Hurricane Lisa, a few days later, two more crews took off in the opposite direction, landing in Sacramento, California, to begin reconnaissance missions into an Atmospheric River over the Pacific Ocean.

While the execution of these missions has its differences, the name of the game is the same: collect atmospheric data for forecasters to inject into models, providing residents, local government officials, and first responders in affected areas the most accurate information in order to prepare accordingly.

“The most notable differences between our winter season and hurricane season missions is altitude, flight path, the amount of dropsondes used, and the weather hazards,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Rickert, 53rd WRS aerial reconnaissance weather officer.

For developed tropical systems, aircrews navigate one of the unit’s ten WC-130J aircraft at around 10,000 feet and fly what is called an alpha pattern. This pattern allows the crew to collect data from all four quadrants of a storm while also crossing through and pinpointing or “fixing” the true center. Finding the center of a storm and sampling atmospheric conditions such as wind speed, barometric pressure and temperature using dropsondes allow forecasters to better predict the track and intensity of a system.

“We’ll also fly missions into suspect areas that are likely to develop,” said Rickert. “These are referred to as low-level invest missions and are flown anywhere from 500 to 1,000 feet. By observing the ocean and winds, we are able to determine whether or not there is a closed center of circulation.”

In addition to the aforementioned vortex fix missions and low-level invests, other responsibilities as outlined in the NHOP include synoptic surveillance, buoy deployments, research missions, and maintaining the fleet of aircraft to be able to support up to five sorties per day and operate simultaneously from three different locations.

 “In regard to our hurricane season operations, we pride ourselves on the diversity and volume of our capabilities. Millions of people residing in  hurricane-prone areas rely on the data our team collects,” said Col. Kevin J. Campanile, 403rd Operations Group commander. “But that’s just half of it.”

For the NWSOP, the squadron is responsible for winter season high-altitude synoptic track and buoy missions and the capability of supporting up to four sorties in a day.

“In November and December, we support buoy drop missions and operate in a resources permitting status for winter storms and atmospheric rivers before deploying aircraft and crews to the West Coast from early January to early March, or as long as necessary, for AR support,” said Rickert.

Atmospheric Rivers are large swaths of water vapor and are key components to the water supply on the west coast, providing 30-50% of the region’s annual precipitation with just a few events. That being said, the high volume of precipitation can result in flooding, mudslides, and other potentially catastrophic events.

“By flying out into the data sparse regions these atmospheric rivers are moving through and collecting the data from these systems, forecasters are able to use that to provide a more accurate outlook and in turn, agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local governments can prepare accordingly whether it’s determining whether to open or close reservoirs or issuing warnings for residents,” said Rickert.

Unlike hurricane missions, atmospheric river and winter storm missions are flown from 25,000 to 30,000 feet in order to get as much of a vertical profile of the atmosphere as possible and dropsondes are released every 60-or-so nautical miles. Flight patterns range from custom paths in the system for West Coast Winter missions to pre-determined patterns ahead of the system for winter storms in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

 “There’s no offseason for the members of the 53rd and all of the other support personnel within the 403rd Wing,” said Campanile. “While the missions are less well known, and the impacts of these systems aren’t always visible or as visibly destructive, winter season missions are just as important as the hurricane season missions, and we’re honored to serve our nation in this capacity.”