Hurricane Hunters tracking Gustav on Katrina anniversary

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. James B. Pritchett
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs
Hurricane Hunters from the Air Force Reserve's 403rd Wing here spent the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina flying into yet another tempest, Hurricane Gustav, which made landfall just west of Grand island, La., Sept 1.

Three years ago, the Hurricane Hunters evacuated aircraft and personnel from the base to forward operating locations where they continued flying into Katrina to provide the National Hurricane Center with critical data used by forecasters to make warnings to areas in the path of the storm.

Crews watched from 10,000 feet as the pounding surf and pulverizing winds destroyed the Mississippi Gulf Coast, including their homes, businesses and those of their friends and family. In the days following Katrina, the Citizen Airmen of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron continued flying missions directed by the NHC, never missing a single tasking.

Already under the gun, 403rd Wg officials had deployed their fleet of WC-130J and C-130J aircraft to foreword operating locations last month when Tropical Storm Fay threatened heavy winds across the Gulf Coast. Aircraft remained in place as follow-on taskings called for them to fly missions into Hurricane Gustav and another recently developed system, Tropical Storm Hannah.

Any time a tropical system threatens the U.S. coastline or those of U.S. interests in the Atlantic, Pacific and Caribbean basin, the Hurricane Hunters fly around-the-clock missions. 

Tasked by the National Hurricane Center, the Hurricane Hunters have flown several missions into Gustav already, pinpointing the location of the center of the storm and providing real-time data to forecasters via satellite communication. 

Information relayed to the NHC helps forecasters to narrow warning areas by more than 30 percent. With increased accuracy in the forecast, the likelihood that people in those areas will heed watches and warnings also improves.

This year, all 10 state-of-the-art WC-130J aircraft are equipped with the Stepped-Frequency Microwave Radiometer which allows Airmen on board to constantly measure surface winds directly below the aircraft. The SFMR, affectionately known as the "Smurf," also can determine rainfall rates within a storm system. This, in addition to wind speeds at flight level provides structural detail of the storm.

Already this season, the Smurf has given forecasters significantly more data to feed into their models and provided more accurate surface-level wind data not always available in the past.

Having the Smurf on board is the most important advancement for this season, according to Lt. Col. Jon Talbot, chief aerial reconnaissance weather officer for the Hurricane Hunters. With the full capability to provide surface wind speed data, the unit gives NHC forecasters the most accurate surface wind speed information prior to landfall.

"This translates into more accurate warnings for the public," he said.

In addition to the 53rd WRS, the 403rd Wg is also headquarters for the 815th Airlift Squadron, which flew essential supplies and equipment into Keesler AFB after Katrina. The unit currently is operating from Texas and is prepared to repeat humanitarian airlifts if called on. 

Support and maintenance teams also deployed with the aircraft as they did in 2005. People and aircraft were displaced for more than three months after Katrina until Nov. 2 when the airfield at Keesler again was ready to support the mission of the wing.

Reservists assigned to the 403rd Wg come from 37 different states to support the missions of the unit; most however live within an hour of the base. More than a third of the Citizen Airmen reported serious damage to their homes after Katrina and more than half had significant damage.

"The 403rd Wing is made up of Reservists and civilian employees, most of whom live in and are a part of this community," said Brig. Gen. Richard Moss, commander of the 403rd Wg, during an interview after Katrina. "Despite the fact many of our people lost everything to Hurricane Katrina, they all returned to work quickly and pitched in to support their neighbors on the Gulf Coast and throughout the Atlantic basin by providing vital data to the National Hurricane Center."

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