A Day With The Hurricane Hunters (update)
I had a unique experience this week. That was the opportunity to fly with a very unique military unit. Unique in the sense that they’re the only one like it in the US military. I’m speaking of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, known as the “Hurricane Hunters”, based at Keesler AFB in Biloxi MS.
The opportunity was one I just couldn’t pass up, so on Tuesday, I and a few other bloggers from as far away as Chicago, hooked up with the 53rd for a 3 hour flight in one of their 10 WC-130J “Hurricane Hunter” aircraft.
Of course we were first initially briefed on the history and capabilities of the squadron. The squadron is comprised entirely of Airforce reservists. Yet they carry a full mission load. So in addition to their monthly training and their 2 week annual training, these folks average 120 more days of active duty time a year.
That’s a lot of time away from home for a part-time job. But they obviously love it. The pilot of our flight had been doing it for 17 years and the AWRO (Aerial Reconnaissance Weather Officer) said she’d been bashing her way into hurricanes for 23 years.
The normal crew for a hurricane mission is 5 (pilot, co-pilot, navigator, AWRO and loadmaster). Depending on the length of the mission, which can last up to 12-14 hours, they may take a second crew with them.
Do they actually penetrate the hurricane? Yes. In fact they fly right through it, from side to side, through the eye. Last year during the hurricane season, they made 162 flights through the eye of hurricanes.
Their work normally begins with a low-level investigation. Naturally forecasters are intersted in what effect the storm is having at sea level. So, if its a tropical storm, they may begin looking at it at 500 feet. As it becomes a hurricane, they step their approaches up. A Cat 1 may see them go in at 1,500 feet and so on.
They never go higher than 10,000 feet, even though these storms may be as high as 50,000 feet. That’s because of icing primarily and lightning strikes secondarily. Icing begins at about 14,000 feet. So while they’re equipped to do deicing, it puts the aircraft at further risk that is just not necessary to do the mission.
When Katrina was building, these folks were flying through her at 10,000 feet and sending invaluable information back to forecasters. Obviously their work has helped both forecasters and meteorologists learn a lot about the behavior of these storms. But more importantly, the Hurricane Hunters have helped sharpen landfall forecasting by 30%. What that means is when you see a storm track which shows where the hurricane might make landfall, it’s a 30% smaller footprint than it would be without the information the squadron provides forecasters.
It is estimated that it costs $1 million to evacuate a single mile of coastline. That reduction of 30%, depending on where the storm is forecasted to go, can mean eliminating the need to evacuate 50 to 100 miles of coastline. Or more simply said, because of that, the cost of all the missions they’ll fly in a year are normally paid for by the savings produced by one mission.
Their area of operations is from the international date line west of Hawaii to the Atlantic ocean. That is a huge AO. Additionally they fly winter storm missions as well. In all a most impressive group. If you’re interested, you can read more about them here.
Having taken the 3 hour flight (a simulated mission and a low-level pass over New Orleans), I’m now on a list to fly into an actual hurricane with them. That’s just too cool. So, with hurricane season starting on June 1st, I’m standing by and hoping for an opportunity (they said it could take up to 3 years) to snag one this year.
Update: I forgot to mention that there was TV media on the flight as well, and this was headlined as the “first blogger flight in the history of the Airforce”. So we were as much the story to them as the flight was to us. Here’s a local TV station’s treatment of the story. I don’t know who the “Bruce McSwain” guy is, but what is he says is true.
[Photos by Cindy Morgan]