Additional VHF antenna enhances communication to improve forecasts

  • Published
  • By Jessica Kendziorek
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

Hurricane season starts June 1 and the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron’s role in collecting weather data is key for forecasts.

To enhance their communication capabilities, the United States Air Force Reserve completed the successful temporary installation and test of a third Very High Frequency, or VHF, antenna in a WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft May 1.

Once testing and evaluation is completed over the summer, installation of the antenna on the 10 WC-130Js is projected to begin this fall.

“Normally we have two VHF radio channels on board our aircraft,” said Tech. Sgt. Mason Henry, 403rd Maintenance Squadron meteorological equipment technician. “The VHF channels are used by the pilots for emergency communications and notifications.”

Russ Evans, C-130 Systems Program Office Avionics Engineer, Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, said that adding the third VHF antenna to the WC-130J gives the Training and Research in Oceanic and Atmospheric Processes in Tropical Cyclones, or TROPIC, U.S. Naval Academy’s internship program a dedicated channel for gathering data during storm missions. Their deployed sensors, the Airborne Expendable BathyThermographs, or AXBT, dropsondes, provide data such as sea temperature and salinity as they descend in the ocean.

Every summer, U.S. Naval Academy cadets with TROPIC work with the 53rd WRS to improve hurricane forecast accuracy by understanding what is happening under the sea during tropical disturbances in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The TROPIC team augments the Hurricane Hunters’ atmospheric measurements by collecting ocean data in and around the storm environment.

“Traditionally, the TROPIC team would connect to one of the two VHF channels already located on board,” said Tech. Sgt. Mason Henry, 403rd MET shop specialist. “This meant that the pilots had to give up one channel to get the research data from the AXBT’s during flight.”

“This additional channel ensures that the pilots have full use of the two VHF channels for communications while conducting critical weather reconnaissance missions,” said Evans.

Due to the impacts of the COVID pandemic and personnel turnover at the Naval Oceanographic Office, the C-130 System Program Office redirected their efforts to work specifically on the integration of the third antenna into the aircraft as the first step in integrating the AXBT mission-related equipment and software into the WC-130J’s weather equipment suite, Evans said.

"The installation of the new VHF radio system marks a significant milestone for our research,” said U.S. Navy Capt. (ret.) Dr. Beth Sanabia, senior principal oceanographer at the University of Washington Applied Physics Lab. “This additional antenna is essential for the success of our missions, especially when tracking and analyzing severe weather phenomena. This upgrade ensures that our crews can operate with greater confidence and efficiency."

According to the C-130 System Program Office, the installation process was planned and executed by experts from their team and members of the 403rd MXS MET shop. The full upgrade will involve retrofitting the aircraft with the new antenna, receivers, control interfaces, and software, while ensuring seamless integration with the existing weather suite. In this first iteration, the aircraft and antenna underwent thorough ground testing and in-flight testing comparing the new antenna signal to the VHF channel previously used to verify the performance and reliability of the new system. This testing ensures that all operational, airworthiness, and cybersecurity risks or concerns are properly addressed before equipment is cleared for permanent installation and operational use.

The successful addition of the VHF radio antenna on the WC-130J Super Hercules is just one step in updating and leveraging innovation to support the joint weather mission in collecting vital meteorological data in severe weather conditions.

“There are more projects in the works to continue investing in technological advancements to maintain and enhance the capabilities of the aircraft for the TROPIC research mission,” said Sanabia. “The upcoming projects will help get information more efficiently.”