Chasing Alex with the Hurricane Hunters
Have you ever gotten to do something that you never, even in your wildest dreams, thought you’d get to do? You know, like fly right through a hurricane?
That was my thought as I headed to Keesler AFB in Biloxi, MS Tuesday night. I had gotten a phone call from TSgt. Tanya King, the NCO in charge of Public Affairs for the 403rd Wing, a US Airforce Reserve command. Part of the 403rd Wing is the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, better known to the world as the “Hurricane Hunters. Sgt. King asked, “would you like to fly into a hurricane”?
As you might imagine, I jumped at the chance. And so Tuesday night, with classic rock blasting on XM, I headed toward Biloxi about as excited as I’d been in years. At the time the first named storm of the season, Alex, was still a tropical storm, but I had been assured that by the time I got to Keesler, Alex would be a hurricane. And Alex would be the first Atlantic Hurricane in June since 1995 – promising a possibly busy hurricane season.
Arriving at the airbase early the next morning, I and some media from Houston, San Antonio and Mobile were briefed up on the mission. Alex was officially a Category 1 hurricane and headed for the Mexican coast south of Brownville TX. The mission, call sign Teal72, would be about 10 hours, the tasking coming from the National Hurricane Center in Miami. We’d be doing what they called a “low level investiture” which meant we’d be going into the hurricane at 5,000 ft. They like to go in as low as the storm will let them. The lower the category, the lower they can enter. Since Alex was a Cat 1 hurricane, we were warned we probably wouldn’t see a clear eye what they call the “stadium effect” – as we might have had the hurricane been of a higher category.
We’d be flying in a WC130J. These “Super Hercules” are equipped with both the power and the equipment to weather the storms they fly through. They contain palletized meteorological data-gathering instruments which are used to gather real-time information as the aircraft penetrate the storm. The information is then sent by burst transmission to the National Hurricane Center where it is compiled and used to both track and predict the storm’s path and intensity.
At about 10am we went wheels up on the mission, 3 full crews serve the flight because of its duration and the intensity of the activity they are subjected too. Each crew has a pilot, copilot, navigator, weather officer and load master. The load master is responsible for dropping the parachute-borne sensor known as the dropsonde. It measures and encodes the weather data down to the ocean surface and transmits it to the weather officer’s station.
So there we were actually heading toward a real, live, spinning in the Gulf of Mexico hurricane. Granted it wasn’t a Katrina, but for me, Cat 1 sounded like plenty. Our flight route took us along the coast to New Orleans and then southwest over the Gulf to Alex. Along the way we were able to see the seemingly endless sheen of the oil that has been spilled by the DeepHorizon blowout.
About 65 miles away from Alex, anticipation began to build. The first aircraft that had penetrated the hurricane the evening before had to turn back due to radar problems. So this was going to be the first in-depth look at the newly designated hurricane.
Sitting on the flight deck watching the operation was fascinating. While it was clear we were in the storm, the flight crew was trying to determine where exactly the eye of Alex was. Using the Stepped-Frequency Microwave Radiometer (SFMR), which the crews call the “Smurf”, they’re able to accurately measure surface winds directly below the aircraft. And using the winds and radar, they searched for the eye. Finally, after some course corrections called by the weather officer and the navigation officer that entailed a series of 10 degree right turns, the far wall of the eye became visible on radar. After that, the co
urse was plotted through the middle of the eye, and the weather officer, using wind data marked the exact center.
Through multiple passes through the hurricane from different directions, they’re able to plot its speed and direction at the National Hurricane Center from data sent by the aircraft.
Surprisingly the ride wasn’t as bumpy as I thought it would be, however, it had its moments. Penetrating the eye wall gave us our most thrilling parts of the ride – certainly everything I wanted and more.
All in all, we made 7 total passes through Alex. A typical mission is 4 passes. Because it was nearing the Mexican coast, the aircraft I was on had its mission extended and the follow on mission was scrubbed. So our Hurricane Hunter followed Alex all the way to the Mexican coast, constantly penetrating and data mapping the hurricane as it moved toward the shore.
Finally, about an hour before Alex made landfall, and running short on fuel, Teal72 turned toward home. 13 ½ hours chasing Alex, about 9 of them in and around the hurricane. During that time, Alex graduated to a Cat 2 and passes 6 and 7 attested to the change. About 15 hours after their day had begun, the crew of Teal72 were done – another long, grueling and successful mission to add to the storied history of the Hurricane Hunters.