Edwards' testers 'propel' Hurricane Hunters through Katrina

  • Published
  • By Capt. Catie Hague
  • 95th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
It has been labeled the greatest disaster in this nation's history by government officials. Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall Aug. 29, has devastated the Gulf Coast and left thousands homeless.

As Air Force bases nationwide work to provide immediate aid through airlift, medical support, engineering, communications and more, Edwards, with its expertise in flight test, looks to provide answers for the future.

Using Katrina as a "target of opportunity," Airmen with the 418th Flight Test Squadron teamed with Air Force Reserve Command's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron from Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., to test the WC-130 Hercules J-model's modified propeller.

The purpose was to improve durability of the Hurricane Hunter aircraft's propeller as it endures severe storm conditions.

The benefit is that it reduces aircraft maintenance turnaround time to maximize the amount of real-time, weather-condition data being reported to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

"The metal petal propeller is a modification to the existing propeller found on operational WC-130Js," said Mark Miller, a 418th FLTS WC-130J project engineer. "Specifically, it's a propeller with metal covers -- taco-shaped -- that fit over the leading edge to protect its de-icing equipment. The metal covering is designed to prevent erosion caused by heavy atmospheric effects during a hurricane."

The de-icing equipment, also know as the de-icing boot, is fixed on each of the aircraft's propellers and heats up to remove ice build-up produced by freezing conditions at high-cruising altitudes, Mr. Miller said. This de-icing capability is needed to fly safely at cruising altitudes to and from the storm. Yet previous hurricane operations identified a higher-than-normal erosion rate of these de-icing boots.

The aircraft typically faces severe precipitation, sustained large field rain rates in excess of 2 inches per hour and hail, said Maj. Frank Delsing, a 418th FLTS WC-130J project pilot.

So to operationally test the modified propeller, the team took advantage of real-world situations that offered these same weather conditions -- hurricanes.

Since Aug. 9, the team has accumulated 83.2 flying hours with the metal petal propeller, Major Delsing said. Of these total hours, 31.25 hours were in heavy precipitation, including 21 encounters with hail, and flights into Hurricanes Irene and Katrina. In both hurricanes, the test team provided real-time, satellite-linked data directly to the hurricane center.

"We continued our testing by flying two sorties into Katrina for a total of 21.5 hours," Major Delsing said. "We penetrated the eye wall 10 times, including the last fix before the storm hit the Gulf Coast. And overall, the new propeller performed quite well. It should significantly increase the durability of the propeller's de-icing boot during similar operations, and in turn, provide Hurricane Hunters with a more reliable aircraft."

WC-130s, along with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aircraft, are used by the hurricane center to increase forecast accuracy and compile both vertical and horizontal profiles of the storms, Major Delsing said.

"The aircraft data increases forecast accuracy by as much as 25 percent over satellite imagery predictions alone," he said. "That translates to millions of dollars of savings in evacuation costs and countless lives saved with more advanced warning for high-threat areas."

Once the final test results are released and the new propeller is installed, the 53rd WRS should be able to take advantage of this de-icing boot modification in time for the next hurricane season, June 2006.