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Hurricane Hunters

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.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

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?

53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron

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.

Heading into Hurricane Alex

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.

Pilot's radar view (left) as Teal72 lined up for the first penetration - a little shaky but we were already in mild turbulence

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.

In the eye (Cat 1)

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.

A break in the clouds (eye - Cat1)

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

Heading in for the final penetration (Cat 2)

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.

Shucks!

I got a call yesterday at about 3pm from Keesler Air Force Base, home of the Hurricane Hunters.

“Hey, can you get to Andrews AFB by Sunday morning? If so we’ll fly you through Hurricane Bill!”

Heck yeah. So I go about doing all the things you have to do to get ready for such an adventure and at about 10am this morning I take off toward DC. About 30 min into the drive, my Airforce PAO contact on the scene calls me to makes sure I’ve got the mission time and we talk about what to take on the flight. She’s talking a flight of 11 to 14 hours. I’m pretty much covered on all the gear I need, but she suggests I pick up some food to take with me since there will be no in-flight meals. OK, I can handle that.

So I continue on toward Andrews when I get a second call.

“I hate to have to call and tell you this, but the National Hurricane Center has canceled tomorrow’s tasking and the mission is scrubbed”.

Ah well, Bill was just a Cat 2 storm and apparently losing a little bit of steam. I made ‘em promise me they’d keep me at the top of the list for the next storm. I definitely still want to join that rather exclusive club of people who’ve flown through the eye of a hurricane – on purpose.

~McQ

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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.

crewOf 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.
at-work
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.

~McQ

[Photos by Cindy Morgan]