Hurricane Series: Hurricane Hunters Look For A New Home

Airmen prepare a WC-130J Hercules for a mission to collect data, on St. Croix, Virgin Islands. Known as the "Hurricane Hunters," the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron mission is to provide surveillance of tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the central Pacific Ocean for the National Hurricane Center in Miami. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Michael B. Keller)


When a hurricane barrels toward Florida, pilots with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA fly their jets — nicknamed “hurricane hunters” — into the storm.

The information they collect helps with forecasts and evacuation orders.

The planes, which are relied on by the National Hurricane Center to keep track of storms, are housed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, but not for long. The base is evicting them.

The base is evicting NOAA’s planes because it expects to house more of its own aircraft there in a few years.

After having operated out of the base for more than 20 years, this year’s hurricane season will be the hurricane hunters last before its eviction next June.


“We got a little bit of time but not much,” said Michael Silah who is the commanding officer at NOAA’s aircraft operations center.

He said that the center is looking for a new home.

Silah said that the search is being done in two phases – short and long term. The first phase involves finding somewhere to house the planes for the next five years that’s within 50 miles of MacDill.

“That’s really to protect the work force,” he said.

Silah said that there’s value in staying in the same region.

“It’s nice to work out of a place that gives us access to the Gulf when we fly gulf storms,” he said.”It gives us access to the Caribbean when we fly Caribbean storms. Tampa really is perfect for that and so we hope to stay in that area.”

Since the Air Force Base made the call in February, federal lawmakers have also been trying to figure out where to put the hurricane hunters.

Republican Congressman David Jolly, who represents Pinellas County, said he first hoped to keep the NOAA planes at the Air Force Base by building a new center at MacDill. But, that would require some funding jujitsu because NOAA and MacDill operate under different agencies.

“And that might be a long term solution to have them remain at MacDill perhaps after this next five year contract,” said Jolly.

As NOAA plans its next steps, Jolly said that he wants the planes to stay local.

“It is a regional asset for us both in terms of protecting the public, in terms of public safety,” he said. “But in terms of 100 plus employees who work in NOAA ensuring that their lives aren’t disrupted and also the economic impact the economic footprint of having NOAA here and then simply it’s a assets that the region should be proud of.”

NOAA operates under the U.S. Department of Commerce. Jolly said that he met with its secretary to discuss the topic, and visited potential new locations for the planes.

Jolly said that he would like to see the hurricane hunters move next to St. Pete/Clearwater, which has both ramp and runway space.

“They also have hangar space and they have office space,” said Jolly. “NOAA could almost move in today. Tampa International Airport has some of that but not all of it but in the course of the year they probably could arrange to accommodate those three important criteria.”

Michael Silah said that they hope to announce the planes’ new location around December.

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