Weather conferences assist with planning for upcoming hurricane, winter seasons

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Marnee A.C. Losurdo
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

Weather can be unpredictable, which is why the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron assigned to the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, works year-round to provide data to improve hurricane and winter season forecasts.

This mission doesn’t happen without planning, so Reserve Citizen Airmen with Air Force Reserve Command, 22nd Air Force, 403rd Wing and the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron attended the Tropical Cyclone Operations and Research Forum, Interdepartmental Hurricane Conference, and Winter Season Working Group March 4-8, at Lakeland, Florida.

The annual conferences bring together experts from federal, academia and private industry meteorological communities to discuss research efforts in the context of operational needs, review prior year’s challenges and plan operations for the upcoming season, said Maj. Chris Dyke, Air Force Reserve Command evaluator aerial reconnaissance weather officer who flies with the 53rd WRS. Federal agencies in attendance included the Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Air Force Reserve.

Typically, the TCORF and Winter Season Working Group meetings occur at separate times in the year, said Dyke, but due to an increase in winter and tropical storm requirements, the meetings were the same week, which the last time that occurred was more than a decade ago.

“Since 2018, there has been a 600% increase in demand for winter season storm reconnaissance, and a 20% increase in tropical storm reconnaissance, so we want to make sure the unit has what it needs to execute the mission,” said Dyke.

In addition to reviewing previous season stats and challenges, agencies also coordinate any changes for the National Hurricane Operations Plan and National Winter Season Operations Plan.

“Those plans serve as a pre-coordinated requirements agreement between NOAA and the Air Force so that before hurricane or winter storm season starts everyone knows what the requirements are going in,” said Dyke. “That way if we get called in at the last minute to fly a storm, we have worked out the expectations and requirements in advance.”

The 53rd is unique in many ways. Not only is it the only unit in the Department of Defense that flies weather reconnaissance, but it provides operational capability to the joint services commanders of U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Pacific Command under the umbrella of the Defense Support of Civil Authorities, or DSCA. Where most Reserve units train for deployments every two to three years, the AF Reserve weather reconnaissance mission occurs 10 months of every year, flying both winter and tropical storms.

While the squadron is aligned under AFRC, weather reconnaissance taskings originate at the National Hurricane Center, Central Pacific Hurricane Center, or National Centers for Environmental Prediction, which fall, not under the Department of Defense, but the Department of Commerce.

Through an interagency agreement, the NHOP governs tropical weather reconnaissance, which requires the squadron to support 24-hour-a-day continuous operations, with the ability to fly up to three storms simultaneously with response times of 16 hours from June 1 to Nov. 30.

The unit also supports the NWSOP, flying atmospheric river and winter storm data collection missions off the West and East Coasts in support of NCEP from Nov. 1 to March 31. The unit began flying the atmospheric river missions in 2016, 2018 and 2019 as part of a research-based project, with flights added each year, until it became integrated into the NWSOP in 2020.

Atmospheric rivers are bands of moisture that come across the Pacific and can carry as much as 25 times the water of the Mississippi River in the form of vapor, said Lt. Col. Ryan Rickert, 53rd WRS Chief ARWO, adding that these systems account for almost half of the West Coast’s annual precipitation and can cause severe flooding.

"Atmospheric river reconnaissance observations are assimilated in real-time into weather forecast models to deliver more precise forecasts to flood control managers, water supply authorities, and reservoir operators so they can prepare for and mitigate flooding or take advantage of the water supplied by atmospheric rivers," said Rickert. "These observations enable the models to produce better forecasts."

Forwarding requirements from the NHC, CPHC, or NCEP to the 53rd WRS is the responsibility of the Chief, Aerial Reconnaissance Coordination All Hurricanes, or CARCAH. This four-man team, assigned to the 53rd WRS, works in Coral Gables, Florida, at the NHC and coordinates all the DSCA reconnaissance flight requirements.

To provide quick reaction aircrew and aircraft maintenance force to meet requirements, the 53rd has 120 reservists, consisting of 10 full-time aircrews and 10 traditional Reserve part-time crews available to fly the 10 WC-130J aircraft designated to accomplish the mission.

“Our crews are occasionally stretched to the limit with the requirement to support operations from two forward operating locations and home station as well as having to fulfill winter season and hurricane reconnaissance simultaneously at times,” said Rickert. ” And, unlike other C-130 units, the 53rd WRS does not have the ability to request support from another C-130 unit and 'rainbow' aircrews; WC-130J weather reconnaissance aircrews fly unique aircraft and have unique skill sets, qualifications and certifications."

One of those unique aspects of the mission deals with training. As one of 20 aerial weather reconnaissance officers in the Air Force, all of whom serve at the 53rd WRS, Rickert said the ARWO training is done in-house.

In fact, the majority of the squadron's training for pilots, navigators, ARWO's and loadmasters is all conducted at home station and during operational missions, said Rickert. There is no formal schoolhouse outside of the 53 WRS.

Even with the challenges that come with a one-of-a-kind mission, the unit perseveres in gathering weather data from inside the storm, something a satellite can’t do, said Rickert.

“Flying tropical storms improves storm track models by 20% or more while flying Atmospheric Rivers can improve forecasts by up to 75%,” said Rickert, adding that their mission saves hundreds of millions of dollars by reducing the miles of U.S. coastline where people do not have to evacuate to other areas. “The data we provide is crucial in improving forecasts which can save lives and property.”