C130 Hurricane Hunter
It started with a bet, as many ill-conceived notions do. This one seemed unlikely to fare any better. In the summer of 1943 a surprise hurricane plowed into Houston, Texas. British pilots training in the area taunted the Americans as they raced to evacuate their AT-6 Texas trainer aircraft, questioning the air-worthiness of the planes. On a bet, lead instructor Major Joe Duckworth turned one of the trainers into the wind and took off straight into the eye of the storm. He returned unscathed, and picked up a passenger for an encore performance. Not only did Duckworth win the bet, his remarkable feat marked the beginning of the storied Hurricane Hunter squadron.
Hurricane Hunter History
The idea of using aircraft reconnaissance to monitor storm systems was not a new one. In the early 1930s the idea was proposed by Galveston businessmanW.L. Farnsworth. The United States Weather Bureau threw their support into Farnsworth’s brainchild and in 1936 the “storm patrol bill” passed both houses of congress.
The Hurricane Hunter moniker stuck and the unit eventually evolved into the Air Force Reserve 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. The B-17 Flying Fortress, a World War II legend, became a workhorse for the squadron after the war. The squadron also benefitted from the surplus acquisition of several B-29 Superfortresses. A “W” was added in front of the B for weather. These planes were a factor in the decision to expand the Hurricane Hunter range of operations across the globe. The more powerful WB-50 Superfortress replaced the B-29 in 1955. The WB-50 Hurricane Hunters played an important role during the October, 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The squadron received orders to monitor the weather for photo reconnaissance flights, which were a key point of contention in the crisis. In 1963 the legendary C-130 Hercules entered into service as a Hurricane Hunter. These sturdy transports dramatically increased the safety and comfort of the Hurricane Hunter crews and the “flying boxcars” are still braving hurricane eyewalls today.
During the immediate post-war period the squadron divided responsibilities. The Navy took over reconnaissance in the Caribbean while the 53rd continued to monitor the Atlantic. Shortly thereafter, the Hurricane Hunters received orders to deactivate, a casualty of post-war military cutbacks. Although reactivated three years later, the 53rd moved often, with Bermuda, Georgia and Puerto Rico headquartering the itinerant squadron for the next decade. It was only after Hurricane Camille left a category 5 footprint on the Gulf Coast that the government acted to bring the squadron to their present home at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. In 1975 the Air Force Reserve formed its’ own weather tracking unit, the 815th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron which became known as the “Storm Trackers”. Both units shared the widening load of tropical cyclone monitoring.
Day to Day Operations
The weather command is tasked with the logistically demanding responsibility to monitor up to three tropical systems twice a day over a vast expanse of open ocean. The Hurricane Hunter sorties range from the Mid-Atlantic to the International Date Line in the Pacific. Each flight takes off with a minimum of five crew members. Two pilots are on board every flight. One is designated the Aircraft Commander (AC) and the other is the co-pilot. The C130J crew compartment also houses a navigator, aerial reconnaissance weather officer, and a weather loadmaster/sonde operator. Other specialists may fly on missions as needed.
First contact missions with a potential cyclone are usually flown around 1,000 feet to determine if the winds are blowing in the trademark counterclockwise direction and to pinpoint the center of the system. As the storm intensifies, the altitude of each mission increases. Contrary to popular opinion, the Hurricane Hunters are incapable of flying over the storms, whose thunderheads sometimes reach 50,000 feet. The pilots fly through the turbulent cloudwall to obtain the most accurate measurements of storm intensity. Once inside the planes drop devices attached to parachutes called sondes that measure surface wind speed and barometric pressure. The data is then sent via satellite to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Each mission averages about 11 hours flying time.
In the age of sophisticated satellite technology many consider the aging C130J Hurricane Hunters obsolete. However the National Hurricane Center estimates the reconnaissance flights’ data improves storm forecasts and tracking projections by up to 30 per cent. The increased accuracy can save millions in evacuation costs and in the end, save lives.