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Reservists support weather reconnaissance mission

  • Published
  • By Carol Carpenter
  • Air Forces North Public Affairs
One of the first things Air Force Reserve Command Hurricane Hunter crewmembers learn about their job ― flying airplanes into hurricanes and other storms to collect weather data ― is to downplay fear.

Lt. Col. Ty Piercefield, a 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron WC-130J Super Hercules pilot, learned an important lesson about calming his fears during his first flight into a major hurricane in 1998.

Acting as a co-pilot on that particular flight, he and four other crewmembers flew a dangerous mission at night into the eye of Hurricane Georges, a major Category 5 storm brewing in the Atlantic Ocean.

Colonel Piercefield described the memorable but frightening experience of the plane being buffeted by high winds and pounding hail as it neared the storm's center.

"As the plane broke through the storm's intense and turbulent eye wall, suddenly the winds died and the plane was surrounded by a tight, circular stadium of towering clouds that were illuminated by the bright moon, stars and bolts of lightning," he said.

"Although it was beautiful outside, red lights in the cockpit alerted us that the violent hail we had just flown through had destroyed an oil cooler in our No. 1 engine. We had to shut the engine down and fly out on three engines," the colonel said. "Thankfully, we made it home OK."

He said he remembered briefly wondering what he had gotten himself into.

"One of our experienced weather officers soon got me into the habit of saying, 'We never really get scared, just sometimes concerned,'" Colonel Piercefield said. He decided the veteran officer's advice was the only sane way to focus on a potentially dangerous job that needed to be done.

In the 12 years since that first harrowing incident, Colonel Piercefield and other Hurricane Hunter colleagues have worked together on numerous storm reconnaissance, surveillance and research missions for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Hurricane Center and also the Department of Defense and Air Force.

Primarily tasked in the Atlantic hurricane season to gather crucial and predictive weather information for hurricanes, cyclones and tropical storms, they also fly winter storm missions along the East and West coasts, Hawaii and Alaska.

During winter flights, Hurricane Hunter aircraft serve as flying weather stations that release long cardboard tubes packed with weather instruments called dropsondes. They gather and transmit storm data to NOAA's Environmental Modeling Center, a weather and climate forecasting system.

The Hurricane Hunter mission provides more accurate information about a storm's intensity and location, said Maj. Tony Jones, the 601st Air Operations Center unique missions support team chief. This contributes to public safety, more timely evacuations and also helps save money.

"The National Hurricane Center says the data collected by Hurricane Hunters makes forecasts 25 to 30 percent more accurate," he said. "It costs in excess of $1 million per U.S. coastal mile to evacuate for a storm. By increasing the accuracy of storm prediction, millions of dollars are saved per storm."