As Hurricane Irene heads north, the Hurricane Hunters are tracking her
As the east coast prepares for Hurricane Irene’s arrival, the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron out of Keesler AFB in Biloxi MS, better known as the “Hurricane Hunters”, is tracking her.
I had the good fortune to ride along with them into Hurricane Alex a couple of years ago. You can read about it here.
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.
As soon as a tropical storm develops and heads toward the US, the Hurricane Hunters are usually tasked with tracking it by the National Hurricane Center. That means one of their specially equipped C130Js is constantly on station within the storm sending back information to the NHC and giving it the data it needs to accurately track the storm and issue warnings about landfall. It is estimated that the this information helps narrow the warning area and that precision saves $1,000,000 a mile for every mile that doesn’t have to be evacuated.
The unit is also an all reserve unit. All the pilots are reservists with civilian jobs such as a commercial pilot. Flying a FedEx jet into Memphis one day and a C130J Hercules into a hurricane the next. The 53rd is also the only military weather recon squadron in existence. You can read more about them here.
Good luck to those in Irene’s path. Batten down the hatches and follow her progress closely. And remember, it is the Hurricane Hunters out there flying through her eye and sending back all that data that allow you to know so precisely where she is.