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'Hurricane Hunters' end one of calmest seasons on record

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. (AFNS) -- Nov. 30 marked the end of hurricane season, and the 403rd Wing's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron closed up shop at their forward operating location at the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport in St. Croix, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Known as the "Roll Up," 403rd Wing reservists spent Dec. 9 through Dec. 15 packing up aircraft parts, tools, and communications and test equipment that was prepositioned at the airport in May to facilitate a quick response when the 53rd WRS, better known as the Hurricane Hunters, is tasked with a storm mission.

The Hurricane Hunters stage their equipment in St. Croix every May, called the "Roll Out," and return it to Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., every December.

The unit needs at least 16 hours notice from the National Hurricane Center, plus flight time to the forward operating location to deploy for a storm tasking, said Lt. Col. Jon Talbot, 53rd WRS chief meteorologist and Roll Up mission commander. Typically, storm taskings on the Atlantic side of the United States are flown from St. Croix or Keesler and storms impacting the Hawaiian Islands are flown from Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.

"We need to be close to the storm to be able to respond quickly," said Talbot. "To do this, we have to make sure we have enough personnel, aircraft and parts to run around the clock operations to accomplish the mission at our forward operating location."

Historically, the squadron flies more storm taskings over the Atlantic as that area of the world experiences more land-falling storms. The waters around Hawaii are cooler so not as many storms form there, said the lieutenant colonel.

However, this was an unusual year for hurricanes.

"It was a very, very slow hurricane season," said Talbot. "Despite the predictions for an active hurricane season, it was the least amount of flights the squadron has flown since 1966. We flew a total of 34 flights this year, and we usually average 100 missions for the National Hurricane Center."

There were 13 named Atlantic storms, which were above the average of 12, but the two hurricanes this season, Ingrid and Humberto, were well below the average of six, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Tropical Storm Andrea, the first of the season, impacted the Southeast and was the only storm to hit the United States this year. Tropical Storm Dorian, which occurred the first week of August, fizzled out before it could reach Central Florida.

Although the U.S. was spared, Mexico wasn't as fortunate. The country was hit by eight storms; five were tropical storms and three were hurricanes.

The Hurricane Hunters also flew several missions on the Pacific side of Mexico, said Talbot.

During a tropical storm or hurricane, a 53rd WRS crew can fly through the eye of a storm four to six times. During each pass through the eye, they release a dropsonde, which collects temperature, wind speed, wind direction, humidity, and surface pressure data. This information is transmitted to the NHC to assist them with their storm warnings and hurricane forecast models.

"Their computer models are not as effective without the data we provide," said Talbot.

Improving these models is key because it assists forecasters in determining the area where a hurricane will make landfall.

"If we can provide the (National Hurricane Center) with a better idea of where the storm is going to hit, it makes the warning area smaller as there is less uncertainty as to what is going to happen," said the meteorologist.

This is a huge cost saver because hurricanes are expensive, he added.

"By improving predictions, we save the taxpayer anywhere from $200,000 to $1 million per mile, depending on the population," Talbot said. " For each land-falling storm or hurricane it can cost the U.S. Government up to $193 million to prepare."

As much as forecasters try to accurately predict the weather, some of it is still unpredictable.

No one knows for sure quite yet why the season was so quiet, said Talbot, but the hurricane forecasters are working on why.

Some of the slow storm activity can be linked to the high-pressure system in the North Atlantic, he said.

"The air coming off the coast of Africa was a lot stronger than normal," he said. "The increased wind speeds picked up a lot Saharan dust, and this air had a stabilizing effect on the atmosphere, which impacted storm growth."

Whatever the reason for the slower than normal season, aircrew, aerial porters, civil engineers and maintenance personnel spent the second week of December servicing equipment, packing up supplies and preparing the Hurricane Hunter's Detachment One facility in St. Croix for next year.

Hurricane season may have ended, but the possibility of severe weather is always on the horizon. The 53rd WRS moves on to perform its winter storm mission for the National Weather Service. Crews fly winter storm tracks along the East and West Coasts and the Gulf of Mexico to gather data to assist the NWS with their computer models for their five and six day forecasts.

It can be a challenge to predict the weather, but the 53rd WRS will be ready to assist in improving those forecasts, said Talbot.

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