KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. (AFNS)
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 data we collect is essential to the NHC because the capabilities of satellites and drones are just not there yet," said Maj. Kimberly Spusta, 53rd WRS ARWO. "To go into the center of the storm to get that data is critical so the NHC can produce the most accurate forecasts possible."
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.
"It isn't often we have to fly three storms from three different locations, but this year was the first time we had to do this since 2010," said 1st Lt. Garrett Black, 53rd WRS ARWO. "It was a very active year in which nearly every portion of the Gulf Coast was impacted by at least tropical storm winds at some point."
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.
"The primary and backup channels on the dedicated satellite system used to send that data were overloaded and locked up," said John Pavone, NHC aircraft coordinator in Miami. "Which put us out of business here at the Hurricane Center."
Without the data from the aircraft, forecasters would be left with just satellite, buoy and radar data to build forecasts. However, Maj. Jon Brady, 53rd WRS ARWO, and Tech. Sgt. Mathis Tillman with the 403rd Maintenance Squadron figured out a workaround and got the information flowing again.
"At the end of the day, we got all of that data that was desperately needed by the forecasters, to them," said Brady.
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.
"The thing that will stand out the most with this past season is the frequency of the major hurricanes we had to fly," Black said. "Especially during the month of September, we were constantly on the move flying not only hurricanes, but multiple category 4 and 5 storms. Unfortunately many of these storms also made landfall."
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.
Col. Robert Stanton, 403rd Wing vice commander, said that it's important for people to take NHC watches and warnings seriously because he's seen first-hand the damage a hurricane can cause after arriving on the Gulf Coast just months before Hurricane Katrina hit.
"There were so many people that thought because their home had made it through Hurricane Camille in 1969 that they were safe," he said. "But even though Katrina was only a category three storm and Camille was a five, the amount of water that [it] swept up the Gulf Coast was devastating."
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.
"With relatively few hurricanes making land fall across the United States the past 10 years, it is important not to become complacent," Black said. "It only takes one storm to cause great devastation, so being prepared and having a plan is one of the biggest takeaways from this year's storm season."