Most pilots are trained to avoid bad weather, skirting their planes around storms. The brave pilots and crew of “Hurricane Hunters” do completely the opposite. They literally fly directly into the eye of hurricanes to gather information for the weather forecasters of the National Hurricane Center (NHC). In doing so, they help keep everyone in hurricane-prone areas safe.
Satellites, as high-tech as they are, cannot provide all the data forecasters need, such as accurate wind speed and the interior barometric pressure of a hurricane, and this is where “Hurricane Hunters” comes in. It is estimated that the data the group collects improves the accuracy of forecasts by up to 30 percent!
The official name of “Hurricane Hunters” is “Air Force Reserve 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron.” Part of the United States Navy, the group is based in Mississippi and is responsible for the area that stretches from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the islands of Hawaii. From September to July, they set up a base in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands. Equipment is moved there at the start of the season and they only have to send in the aircraft and crew when a storm develops in the Atlantic.
They use the sturdy, reliable propeller aircraft, the WC-130J Super Hercules, to fly into the storms. The planes are fitted out with a computer with a special weather program that sends the data collected from the plane’s sensors instantly by satellite to the NHC weather forecasters. The forecasters there plug the information into their supercomputers to prepare forecasts for the storms.
Each plane has a crew of five – the pilot (who is the commander in charge), the co-pilot, a navigator, a weather officer and a weather loadmaster. The loadmaster is in charge of making sure all the equipment and crew are loaded safely on board.
When a storm appears to be forming, the NHC sends in Hurricane Hunters to find out if the winds are blowing in a rotation, which would indicate that a storm is developing and becoming stronger. The aircraft flies into the area at a low altitude of between 500 and 1500 feet above sea level.
If a circulation is found, Hurricane Hunters would start to fly “fix” missions; heading at a higher altitude into the centre of the storm. The Weather Officer releases an instrument called a dropsonde into the eye wall and into the eye of the storm. The dropsonde measures the maximum winds at the surface of the ocean and the lowest pressure in the eye wall.
The NHC uses the information gathered by Hurricane Hunters to forecast the path and intensity of tropical storms and hurricanes. This information is passed to local meteorologists and governments who can then issue watches and warnings.
Of course everyone wants to know what it feels like to fly into the eye of a hurricane. When asked, Hurricane Hunters Commander Major Brad Roundtree described it as being like a roller coaster ride through a car wash!