Hurricane Hunters show Alex strengthen into Category 2 storm before landfall

  • Published
  • By Randy Roughton
  • Defense Media Activity-San Antonio
Hours before an aircrew from the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron left for an after-midnight flight into Hurricane Alex, the storm had just been upgraded from a tropical storm to a hurricane. By the time the crew returned from more than seven hours inside the storm, the data they gathered showed signs the storm was growing stronger even as it approached landfall.

The powerful storm, the strongest June hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. since 1966, came ashore late in the evening of June 29 on an unpopulated stretch of coast in northern Mexico about 110 miles south of Brownsville, Texas.

Alex reached Category 2 classification on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale with sustained winds of 105 miles per hour, and spawned tornadoes in southern Texas.

As the Hurricane Hunter crew flew into the hurricane's eyewall, Senior Airman Jenna Daniel delivered a cylindrical object into the heart of the storm. The dropsonde, along with the stepped-frequency microwave radiometer, gathered information on the first named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season. Hurricane Alex became the first Atlantic-based hurricane to enter the Gulf of Mexico in June since 1995, as well as the first since the oil spill that followed the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20.

The Hurricane Hunter crew entered the hurricane's eye in the WC-130J Hercules at 5,000 feet when the storm was located 130 miles off Mexico's coast. Information gathered by the dropsondes and radiometer, which crewmembers call the "smurf," showed wind speeds had increased to 80 mph and maximum winds of 105 mph in the northeast quadrant of the storm. They also detected the hurricane's lowest minimum pressure had dropped to 958 millibars, said Capt. Douglas Gautrau, an aerial reconnaissance weather officer. Later, the pressure dropped even further to 948, as it moved toward landfall. By comparison, back on Aug. 13, 2004, Hurricane Charley had a low minimum pressure of 941 millibars before it slammed into southeastern Florida with 150 mph winds as a Category 4 hurricane.

The radiometer, which is located within a pod attached to the aircraft's wing, accurately measures wind speeds directly below the aircraft at the ocean's surface. Hurricane Hunter missions already improve National Hurricane Center forecasts by 30 percent. Maj. Jeff Ragusa, aircraft commander on the Hurricane Alex mission, said the radiometer further enhances the data the aircrew provides for hurricane forecasts.

"We're getting a good picture of the surface winds of the storm," Maj. Ragusa said. "That's a capability we didn't have a few years ago."

Before the radiometer was added in 2008, Hurricane Hunter crewmembers gathered wind speed information from dropsondes and observations through windows of the WC-130. The radiometer also measures rainfall rates in a storm, and flooding in Mexico and south Texas was a major concern with Hurricane Alex.

"Before, we were getting about 10 observations every hour," Captain Gautrau said. "Now, with the smurf, we're getting data every second, with 3,600 surface wind observations every hour."

The dropsonde is a weather instrument package dropped by a weather reconnaissance loadmaster into the eyewall and center of the hurricane. As a parachute or drogue slows the descent to the ocean surface, the dropsonde gathers current pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed, direction and global positioning system information to instruments on the aircraft, said Tech. Sgt. Amy Lee, a weather reconnaissance loadmaster with the 53rd WRS since 2004. This information is then sent to the National Hurricane Center by satellite communications.

The crew on this flight are reservists in the 53rd WRS, the only military unit worldwide that flies regular hurricane reconnaissance. Sergeant Lee said she feels more of a sense of duty than any kind of individual pride for the role she plays in the data the Hurricane Hunters provide to forecasters at the National Hurricane Center.

"I personally feel very sad when a hurricane makes landfall for the people in the path of the storm and their loss," Sergeant Lee said. "I'm really happy they were able to get out of the way in time. I'm proud just like anybody else is proud who did their job. I did my duty."