Hurricane Hunters

Hurricane Hunters are a division of the U.S. Air Force Reserve (AFRES) that supports the National Hurricane Center (NHC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aircraft Operations Center (NOAA/AOC). The NHC estimates that Hurricane Hunter aircraft increase the storm forecast accuracy by about 30% (see Reference #10). Most people know their basic mission is to fly to the center or eye of a storm, collect data and return home. What most people don’t know is that there are actually two sets of Hurricane Hunters:

The Ones We Know Best:

The first set of Hurricane Hunters is based out of Kessler Air Force Base near Biloxi Mississippi, although the unit temporarily moved to Dobbins Air Reserve Base near Atlanta after Kessler was damaged during Hurricane Katrina. This Air Force Reserve group is known as the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (WARS), with ten aircraft and 20 aircrews, part of the 403rd Wing. The 53rd WARS was activated on January 1st, 1976 (as the 815th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron) and was then known as the Storm Trackers (the first hurricane they flew into was Hurricane Annette on June 9th, 1976). The group was renamed the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron “Hurricane Hunters” on November 1st, 1993 after funding was cut by the Air Force and the operation was moved to the Air Force Reserve. The 53rd is the only unit in the world that flies weather reconnaissance missions on a routine basis. Each aircraft used by the 53rd is a WC-130J Hercules (a structurally unmodified Lockheed C-130) that carries special computers and instruments for weather reconnaissance. WC-130Js cost about $22 million each and can stay airborne for up to 18 hours in best case scenario conditions.

Aircrews for the WC-130Js are made up of five crew members:

  • Pilot and Co-Pilot: These folks do what pilots and co-pilots are supposed to do, they fly the plane. The pilot is the aircraft commander.
  • Navigator: This is your map-reader: he keeps track of where the aircraft’s going, where it is and how it’s going to get back home. The navigator also watches out for tornadic activity via onboard radar.
  • Aerial Reconnaissance Weather Officer: Nice title huh? The AWRO observes and records meteorological data via computer and acts as flight director once inside a storm. An AWRO is also known as the Flight Meteorologist.
  • Weather Reconnaissance Loadmaster: Another nice title, this is the person who records vertical data using a dropsonde. I’m sure you’re wondering what the hell a dropsonde is; it’s an instrument (about 16 inches long and 3˝ inches in diameter) dropped by parachute in and around a hurricane that collects and records meteorological data as it falls from flight level to the ocean surface. This person used to be known as the Dropsonde System Operator.

And how do you fly into a hurricane? Basically, right through the wall of the storm (nice try if you guessed up and over). WC-130Js fly towards a storm at high altitudes (24,000-30,000 feet to conserve fuel) then (about 200 miles away) descend to storm operating level. A wall cloud surrounding the center of a tropical storm or hurricane can be as thick as 10 to 15 miles, with wind gusts up to 100 mph.

Since 2008, all WC-130Js have been outfitted with a system called the Stepped-Frequency Microwave Radiometer nicknamed “smurf”. The SFMR is an external pod that measures microwave radiation from wind whipped sea foam. On board computers can determine wind speeds from this radiation; the advantage of a smurf pod is that it can give operators more constant and varied measurements as opposed to dropsondes that are only deployed every 400 miles.

A Florida Connection:

In addition to the 53rd WARS, there is also support for weather reconnaissance from NOAA, which has three “flying laboratories” (a third was added in the spring of 2007). These aircraft (Lockheed WP-3D Orions) are based in Tampa, Florida at MacDill Air Force Base and make up the second set of Hurricane Hunters. The Orions fly research missions and are in the air about 400 hours per year. Like the 53rd, they will fly into tropical storms and hurricanes to collect and transmit meteorological data. Unlike the 53rd, the MacDill group (NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center) spends only about 15% of the year studying hurricanes and tropical storms. The Aircraft Operations Center has been in Tampa since 1993 (previously it was based at Miami International Airport). The AOC’s WP-3Ds (modified P-3 Orions nicknamed Kermit and Miss Piggy) have been in service since 1977. As of July 1st, 2008, NOAA’s third P-3 was still in Canada being retrofitted for service. It was unclear what the nickname of the third P-3 would be, but sources indicate “Beaker” is the leading choice.

When flying into a hurricane, both the WP-3Ds and the WC-130Js penetrate the “eye wall” which (as mentioned) can be up to 15 miles thick. The WP-3s however, really get up close and personal with a hurricane. Unlike the WC-130J (which penetrate a hurricane at 24,000-30,000 feet in less turbulent conditions and collect data at higher altitudes), the WP-3Ds go right to the center of the storm: once inside they fly as high as 20,000 feet but also as low as only 5,000 feet flying in a “figure 4” pattern (the cross points of the “4” being the eye of the storm).

A Gulfstream IV jet aircraft also supports the efforts of both these groups. The Gulfstream (nicknamed Gonzo) used to fly 100-300 miles away from the storm at an altitude of up to 45,000 feet. According to NOAA, when combined with information from the other aircraft, data collected by the Gulfstream has helped improve storm forecasting by 25%.

On July 29th, 2005, the St. Petersburg Times ran an article criticizing NOAA’s use of Gonzo. According to the piece (by Paul de la Garza), NOAA changed the mission parameters of the Gulfstream; instead of flying close to hurricanes (which the planes had been doing since 1996), the union said the aircraft now flew through hurricanes. That’s risky enough; NOAA’s union (the National Weather Service Employees Organization) said that Gonzo’s manufacturer (Gulfstream) hadn’t certified the aircraft to fly through hurricanes and that the plane doesn’t have the proper radar for hurricane flying. Citing safety concerns, the NWSEO filed a complaint on July 26th, 2005 with the Federal Labor Relations Authority claiming that NOAA hadn’t consulted with the union members before instituting new policies that the union felt put its workers in harms way (by the way, the pilots aren’t NWSEO union members, just the meteorologists flying on board). At the time of the complaint, the NWSEO said Gonzo had already flown through 2005’s Hurricane Emily and Tropical Storm Franklin; NOAA in turn claimed said the aircraft flew above the storms.

Testimony into the matter started on February 1st, 2006. On June 30th, 2006, Federal Labor Relations Authority Judge Richard Pearson sided with the union and ordered NOAA to stop flying the Gulfstreams into storms until the government and the union came to an agreement. The ruling did not affect the G-IVs mission to fly around storms, just not through them. By the way, the Kessler WC-130Js fly with a crew of six; the P-3s fly with a crew anywhere from seven to seventeen people. And while a WC-130J costs around $22 million, a P-3 goes for around $36 million (although the last new P-3 was built in April of 1990).

On September 16th, 2005, NOAA unveiled a new Hurricane Hunter- an unmanned flying drone. The Aerosonde has a wingspan of 9.51 feet, cruises up to 93 mph and has a range of 1,864 miles. NOAA, NASA and Aerosonde developed the vehicle to not only provide support to the manned missions of the Hurricane Hunters, but to also do something the P-3s and Gulfstream can’t do: fly lower.

Because the Aerosonde is small and unmanned, NOAA is able to direct the craft lower into a hurricane’s core. The first test of the system came during 2005’s Hurricane Storm Ophelia- the day after the storm was downgraded to a tropical storm NOAA sent the first Aerosonde in to take readings. During the ten hour mission, the Aerosonde was able to fly as low as 500 feet into the storm and unlike dropsonde buoys that descend through a storm and then fall into the sea, an Aerosonde can “linger” in the storm using its infrared sensors to more accurately measure changing wind speeds, water temperatures and other atmospheric anomalies.

Aerosonde operations are based out of Wallops Island, Virginia. Data is directly sent in almost real-time to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

The Ultimate E-Ticket Ride:

So who would be crazy enough to fly into the middle of a hurricane? Well, Colonel Joseph B. Duckworth was the first to do it on July 27th, 1943 in a single engine AT-6 trainer near Galveston Texas (as the story goes, he did it on a dare when taunted by fellow aviators from Britain). After successfully proving planes could fly through hurricanes (he and his crew actually did it twice the first day), the Air Force started to “hunt” hurricanes as opportunities arose. Within three years, those in the know where calling the flights Hurricane Hunters; fifteen years later, more than 100 aircraft were configured for a variety of weather reconnaissance.

On average, WC-130J missions will last 10-12 hours, a WP-3D mission 8 to 11 hours. And don’t think the ride is all about fun in the sun; penetrating the storm is the trickiest part of the mission. In the eye wall, flight crews experience torrential rain, updrafts and downdrafts and unbelievable turbulence. Hurricane Hunters penetrate a storm anywhere from 3-6 times per mission (2-4 times through the eye). But once an aircraft is inside the eye, the conditions are much different. Sunny skies prevail with calm winds and the ocean visible below. A pronounced “circle” of turbulent weather surrounds the aircraft. Hurricane Hunter crew members have described it as sitting inside a big stadium.

While flying in a Hurricane Hunter or doing severe weather reconnaissance may sound glamorous, storm reconnaissance has also had its share of tragedies (four to be exact):

  • October 26th, 1952: Ten Air Force crewmen were killed when their WB-29 (a modified version of a B-29) was lost during reconnaissance of Typhoon Wilma in the Pacific Ocean…
  • September 26th, 1955: Nine Navy crewmembers and two Canadian newsmen were killed when their P-2V-5F went down during reconnaissance of Hurricane Janet in the Caribbean…
  • January 15th, 1958: The Air Force lost nine men and a WB-50 during reconnaissance of Super Typhoon Ophelia in the Pacific Ocean southeast of Guam…
  • October 12th, 1974: A crew of six men was killed as they tried to fly into Typhoon Bess in the South China Sea in an Air Force WC-130H. Debris from the aircraft was found, but not the plane itself, nor the crew…

Finally, coordinating all of this activity falls under a small group of Air Force civilians, assigned to the National Hurricane Center. The unit, under CARCAH (Chief, Aerial Reconnaissance Coordination, All Hurricanes) is responsible for arranging flights and determining requirements for supporting flights. Once information is gathered, CARCAH confirms it and transmits it worldwide to the military and civilians.

Reference #10: “Stepped-Frequency Microwave Radiometer.” 403rd Wing Fact Sheet. Accessed June 1, 2009.