KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. (AFNS) --
The 2020 National Tropical Weather Conference, originally scheduled for April, was postponed due to COVID-19, however, the pandemic didn’t stop emergency managers, meteorologists and the Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters from going live online to talk about their mission and educate the public.
The event is a national forum where experts in tropical meteorology inform media and business members about hurricane preparedness so they can better prepare their communities for when a hurricane threatens, said Alex Garcia, NTWC director and the Storm Science Network’s president and chief executive officer.
However, instead of a two-day event, they had live online sessions with weather experts to deliver content to broadcast meteorologists and emergency managers who live in hurricane-impact zones.
This topic is an important one for Lt. Col. Ryan Rickert and Capt. Garrett Black, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron aerial reconnaissance weather officers. The Airmen met with members of the NTWC leaders and meteorologists for a live Skype session May 21 to discuss their mission and why the public needs to be weather ready.
“There are a lot of National Weather Service and television meteorologists who attend this conference and live in areas affected by tropical cyclones, so they have a lot of interest in this topic,” said Rickert, who has attended the conference for the past three years. “It’s a great event. We brief attendees about the mission, why we do it, the storms we flew in the past year, and some of the challenges we face. This is a great opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of being prepared for hurricane season.”
“Hearing from the meteorologists who fly on the Hurricane-Hunter missions provides a valuable educational experience for conference attendees,” Garcia said. “Understanding what is happening during a mission and why provides a keen insight that broadcast meteorologists can then convey to their viewers.”
The 53rd WRS is the only Department of Defense unit that flies weather reconnaissance missions into severe tropical weather June 1 to Nov. 30, to gather data for the National Hurricane Center to improve their forecasts and storm warnings.
Black and Rickert briefed the online audience about their one-of-a-kind mission, which is unique for several reasons.
First, their operating area is immense, ranging from the mid-Atlantic to Hawaii. Second, while the squadron is aligned under Air Force Reserve Command, weather reconnaissance taskings originate at the National Hurricane Center, which falls, not under the DoD, but the Department of Commerce. Through an interagency agreement, tropical weather reconnaissance is governed by the National Hurricane Operations Plan, which requires the squadron to support 24-hour-a-day continuous operations, with the ability to fly up to three storms simultaneously with response times of 16 hours. The squadron flies a couple of different missions.
The unit flies storms before they are even named. Called invest missions, the unit flies these systems at 500 to 1,500 feet to determine if there is a closed circulation, Black said.
Once a system becomes a tropical storm or hurricane, they fly at higher altitudes, ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 feet depending on the severity of the storm. Aircrews fly through the eye of a storm four to six times to locate the low-pressure center and circulation of the storm. During each pass through the center, they release a dropsonde, which collects weather data on its descent to the ocean surface, specifically gathering wind speed, wind direction, pressure, temperature and humidity.
During the invest and storm flights, the aircrews transmit weather data via satellite communication every 10 minutes to the National Hurricane Center to assist them with their forecasts and storm warnings.
In addition to flying tropical weather reconnaissance, the squadron also flies winter season storms over the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic and Pacific oceans. These missions are flown at 25,000 to 30,000 feet and the release 25-30 dropsondes per mission to provide weather data to forecasters to help predict these events, Rickert said.
While flying into tropical and winter storms is a challenge in itself, COVID-19 has introduced its own set of issues for commuting unit members who need to maintain their currency and training.
“Unit members are getting training accomplished while complying with Department of Defense and base requirements to keep everyone safe while ensuring we are ready for the upcoming season,” Rickert said.
In 2019, the Hurricane Hunters flew more than 684 hours and 81 missions into nine storms over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. This year forecasters are predicting a busier than normal season, but Rickert reminds people need to be prepared for whatever Mother Nature brings their way.