For the National Hurricane Center to gather the information it needs to create its critical forecasts, a special group of specialized airmen need to travel directly into the storm.
The men and women of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, also called the “Hurricane Hunters,” are located at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi.
They have a unique mission like no other in the Air Force, as they are the only operational unit flying weather reconnaissance on a routine basis.
The Hurricane Hunters 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. The unit also flies other missions during the hurricane “off-season” to investigate winter storms off both coasts of the U.S.
The 53rd flies a 10 WC-130J, also known as a Super Hercules aircraft, into the heart of the biggest, most destructive storm on the planet. Lt. Col. Mark Withee is a navigator among a five-member, highly trained flight crew that also includes a pilot, co-pilot, flight meteorologist and weather reconnaissance loadmaster.
“We are obviously based at Keesler Air Force Base; however, we have the ability to operate from a variety of locations. Our primary forward-operating location is St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and that gives us the reach for tropical weather that’s coming across the Atlantic,” Withee said.
The squadron usually enter a storm at the same flight level, but there are many variables that make every flight different.
“10,00 feet is a pretty standard altitude for major hurricanes… for smaller storms we may go in at 5,000 feet, and there are certain investigatory-type missions where we’ll be going down to say, 1,000 feet. What particular angle we may enter a storm really depends on where we’re coming from and where the storm is in proximity to other thing,” Withee said.
Withee emphasized that the experience of flying through a tropical storm is much different than a major hurricane, but sometimes the roughest rides are on the smaller storms. However, the crew has never been put in grave danger, he said.
“We fly together a lot in training missions, and we have procedures and techniques that are built to fly these missions safely. I really have a lot of confidence in the people that I fly with and there’s never been those moments where I’ve been in fear for my life,” he said.
There are still inherent circumstances that occasionally endanger the crew and their mission.
“There was an incident that got a lot of attention a few years ago where a plane was enroute to a storm and lightning took out the plane’s radar, so they had to turn around. We are flying through a very extreme environment and sometimes things happen. We did have a window crack in the aircraft, and because we need the aircraft to be in top form, the decision was made to turn around,” he recalled.
When they do encounter damage or other malfunctions, the experienced crew decides whether to press on with the mission, or return to base.
“There is a lot of give and take and flexibility that’s really the key to accomplishing the mission,” Withee said.
This is the first installment of a three-part series this week covering the Hurricane Hunters of the Air Force Reserve.