KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
I never knew that you could smell a thunderstorm — they almost smell like hot asphalt or a spark made from flint and steel.
I inhaled deeply trying to memorize that smell at 5,000 feet above the surface of the ocean in a WC-130J Super Hercules in the middle of Hurricane Hermine. It was my first flight with the Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron “Hurricane Hunters," and I’d looked forward to it for months.
I was especially looking forward to the turbulence, and I wasn’t disappointed. Being in the back of a C-130 in the middle of a hurricane was like wearing a blindfold on a roller coaster, but even more exciting. I gripped onto the metal railing of my seat and giggled like a little kid.
Between rides on the turbulence coaster I got out of my seat and pressed my face against the cool glass window attached to a back door to get a better look at the stunning clouds that grew thicker as we approached the storm.
After I'd taken a few dozen pretty cloud pictures I wandered around the plane watching the crew work and listening as best I could through ear plugs and the roar of the propellers so I could learn about how the Hurricane Hunters operate and why their mission is so important.
One thing that makes the 53rd WRS so unique is the fact that they have a special waiver for flying through severe weather. Navigators spend their flight hours monitoring the aircraft’s radar, which has a spectrum of colors that indicate different kinds of weather. Green means there’s some rain, yellow means there’s moderate rain and red typically indicates a thunderstorm-like environment. The hurricane hunters own 10 of the 12 aircraft in the world allowed to fly through red areas, everyone else is required to go around. The other two are P-3 Orions owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hurricane Hunters.
Once the pilots and navigator have reached the storm they then have to find and fly to the eye and begin an alpha pattern which is like drawing a big “X” in the sky. Something else I didn’t know was that the storm environment can begin more than 100 miles away from the eye. Going through the eye wall was the most fun part of the storm to me because it was the most turbulent and once you made it through, the view was breathtaking.
An aerial reconnaissance weather officer collects weather data from plane sensors throughout the storm, but during each pass through the eye, the ARWO collects even more data from a dropsonde. A dropsonde is a long tube that a loadmaster launches from the aircraft, which then falls toward the ocean collecting wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity and pressure, and sending them back to the plane where they are collected, analyzed and relayed to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida to be used in their forecasts.
The importance of the Hurricane Hunter mission can be illustrated in the fact that when we took off from Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi we were headed into Tropical Storm Hermine and before we left the storm it had been upgraded to Hurricane Hermine. It’s because of the data that the hurricane hunters collect during these missions that the NHC is able to produce more accurate forecasts.
Seeing Hurricane Hermine from the inside and learning about the 53rd WRS Hurricane Hunters gave me the opportunity to see a major storm from another perspective. But however beautiful and exciting they are from the air, I know that they are also dangerous and destructive from below. Having ridden out Hurricane Issac in 2012, which totaled my car in the aftermath, I now know how important it is to pay attention to the NHC forecasts and heed any warnings that are issued for your area.
As we landed on flight line that was sunny and radiating heat I was thankful for the opportunity to have done something so incredibly unique and watched a crew gather data that would allow the NHC to give people more warning about where a storm will hit and how intense it could be, potentially saving money, resources and lives.