As massive spirals of lightning, wind and rain, hurricanes are some of the most dangerous and destructive forces in nature. And the Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters fly directly into the center of them. During the 2017 season, which ended Nov. 30, the Hurricane Hunters, officially known as the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, flew more than 800 hours across more than 90 missions into 12 named storms.
Hurricane Hunter crews include at least two pilots, a navigator, an aerial reconnaissance weather officer and a loadmaster. It also takes an entire team of maintainers and support personnel working around the clock to keep the aircraft in the air.
During each pass through the eye of a storm, the loadmaster and ARWO work together to collect wind speed and direction, temperature, dew point and pressure. This data is then transmitted to the National Hurricane Center every 10 minutes throughout the duration of the mission.
The critical data collected by the Airmen of the 53rd WRS contributes to the NHC’s ability to determine the direction and intensity of any tropical system that develops in the Atlantic or Pacific oceans.
The season began with Tropical Storm Arlene, which was only the second tropical storm observed in April since the use of satellites in weather data collection. The Hurricane Hunters didn’t fly Arlene because it was never projected to make land fall.
The first official mission of the season was into what would later become Tropical Storm Bret, the earliest named storm to form far south in the Atlantic Ocean in 167 years of official record keeping. Tropical Storm Cindy, Tropical Storm Don and Hurricane Franklin were next and brought heavy wind and rainfall but no catastrophic damage.
Then along came Hurricane Harvey. Harvey began as a scattered collection of clouds drifting across the Atlantic Ocean and in little over a week rapidly intensified before making landfall as a Category 4 storm in Texas, the first major hurricane to hit the U.S. since 2005. According to the National Weather Service, after landfall Aug. 25, tens of thousands of South Texas residents and businesses lost power for days, with the hardest hit areas losing power for several weeks. After causing deadly and damaging winds and floods to South Texas, and catastrophic, historical, devastating, and life-threatening flooding over Southeast Texas, Harvey made its final landfall near Cameron, Louisiana during the overnight hours Aug. 30.
There was little rest for the Hurricane Hunters after completing missions into Harvey before the squadron began flying the next three storms – Irma, Jose and Katia — simultaneously from three different locations. This was the first time since 2010 that three Atlantic hurricanes have existed at the same time.
Hurricane Irma swept up the coast of Florida, affecting almost every area with power outages, flooding and structural damage. Hurricanes Jose and Katia had little impact, but flying three storms from three locations took a toll on the squadron. At any given time, the 53rd WRS must have the ability to continuously fly three storms simultaneously with 16 hours’ notice. With the development of those storms, 53rd WRS was stretched to those limits and the system became overloaded.
Without the data from the aircraft, forecasters would be left with just satellite, buoy and radar data to build forecasts. Hurricane Maria formed in the Atlantic mid-September and rapidly strengthened, reaching Category 5 just prior to landfall on Dominica and later causing nearly indescribably catastrophic damage to Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm. It’s predicted that it will take years for Puerto Rico to recover from the storm.
Tropical Storm Norma was the only Pacific mission flown by the Hurricane Hunters this season and quickly moved out to sea. One storm, Hurricane Nate, barreled toward the Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters’ home station on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Two aircraft sheltered in hangars on base while the 403rd Wing’s C-130J Super Hercules aircraft flown by the 815th Airlift Squadron, a tactical airlift unit, were relocated to Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, and the WC-130Js flown by the 53rd WRS moved to Ellington Field, Texas, where they continued to track Nate until the storm made landfall.
Nate was followed by Tropical Storm Philippe, which had little impact and Hurricane Ophelia, which the squadron didn’t fly, but which was the easternmost Atlantic major hurricane on record and one of the costliest cyclones to ever impact Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Many of these Airmen travel from around the country to be a part of the mission and only about half are full-time members of the crew. The rest are traditional reservists who show up when called and put their civilian jobs and their home lives on hold to fly into these storms. Many say that they do the job because the data they provide makes a difference in people’s ability to take precautions against dangerous storms.
Though the 2017 hurricane season has officially ended, the work of the hurricane hunters never does. During the “off” season they participate in research projects, conduct community outreach events and even collect data on major winter storms.
Source: US Air Force Images and video credits: U.S. Air Force, Staff Sgt. Heather Heine