Hurricane Hunters ready to take on 2006 storm season

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. James B. Pritchett
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

It was a quiet opening day of the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season. Hurricane Hunters of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron spent the day training and getting ready for what forecasters say will be another active season.

Though the season officially began June 1 and ends Nov. 30, last year these reservists flew more than 1,500 hours into storms beginning in May with Hurricane Adrian in the Pacific and finally ending in December flying missions into Hurricane Epsilon.

Tropical Storm Zeta formed later, extending the 2005 season into 2006 though it did not threaten landfall.

The National Hurricane Center is predicting 13 to 16 named storms this year, with eight to 10 becoming hurricanes, of which four to six could become major hurricanes of Category 3 strength or higher with winds of at least 111 mph.

The National Hurricane Center, or NHC, in Miami decides when to call on the Hurricane Hunters, who are assigned to the Air Force Reserve Command's 403rd Wing here. The unit flies all operational missions to provide data to forecasters at the NHC.

When a tasking is issued, the Airmen of the 53rd WRS are prepared to fly an average of 11 hours crisscrossing the storm and penetrating the powerful eyewall several times during each mission. The aerial reconnaissance weather officer and weather reconnaissance loadmaster use computers to gather data. Sensors on the aircraft and sophisticated weather instrument packages called dropsondes collect wind speed, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure and other information forecasters use to determine the path and strength of a hurricane.

“We love the job that we do. It's a very rewarding job," said Randy Bynon, a weather reconnaissance loadmaster with the squadron. "We gather data and collect it on the computer. We analyze it, format it and make sure it's accurate and then we transmit it directly from the aircraft via satellite to the National Hurricane Center."

The mission has improved the accuracy of forecasts by up to 30 percent, said Max Mayfield, director of the NHC.

"With our data, the forecasters can narrow their evacuation areas, saving lives and billions of dollars as well," said Capt. Jerry Rutland, a Hurricane Hunter pilot.

The only modifications to the WC-130J Hercules aircraft flown by the Hurricane Hunters are the weather computers. With these removed, the squadron can perform airlift missions. The squadron flies 10 WC-130Js, which were first used last season for operational storm reconnaissance. The unit completed conversion to the new J-model aircraft ahead of schedule partially due to Hurricane Katrina, which severely impacted the their home station in Biloxi, Miss.

The worst natural disaster in U.S. history and the deadliest since 1928, Katrina forced the unit to evacuate and operate out of a forward-operating location for much of the season. Despite the move, the unit didn’t miss a single tasking. Hurricane Hunter crews continued flying into Katrina and then moved on to the next storm, even as some of them learned their homes were destroyed.

"We lost everything. We had to completely gut the house and we are still rebuilding it," said Lt. Col. Doug Fairtrace, a navigator.

Katrina left behind destruction worse than any other weather event in American history, and researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said they were able to save tens of thousands of lives by pinpointing where the eye would hit, due in part to data provided by the Hurricane Hunters. Katrina also was the costliest storm with some estimates exceeding $80 billion.

Several records were set during the 2005 hurricane season:

-- Named storms: 28; previous record: 21 in 1933 ( The Hurricane Hunters were tasked to fly into 25 storms.)

-- Hurricanes: 15; previous record: 12 in 1969
-- The Hurricane Hunters flew more than 145 missions. 

-- Major hurricanes hitting the United States: four (Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma); previous record: Three, most recently in 2004.

-- Hurricanes of Category 5 intensity (greater than 155 mph): four (Emily, Katrina, Rita and Wilma); previous record: two in 1960 and 1961

(Courtesy of Air Force Reserve Command News Service)