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When severe winter weather threatens U.S. the Hurricane Hunters are there

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. (AFNS) -- The Hurricane Hunters of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron here, recently deployed a WC-130J Hercules out over the Atlantic Ocean to gather weather data for winter storms "Lola” and “Juno", which are projected to ravage the East Coast throughout the next few days with nearly three feet of snow and 70 mile per hour winds.

The National Weather Service tasked the Hunters to employ dropsondes, a weather reconnaissance device, to measure the weather ahead of the winter storm. The hunters dropped the devices in a large loop pattern nearly 200 miles off the East coast between Jacksonville, Florida, and the Outer Banks, North Carolina on Jan. 23; and between the North and South Carolina line and New York on Jan. 26.

"We fly predetermined tracks that the National Weather Service (has) designed for these types of storms," said Lt. Col. Jon Talbot, the 53rd WRS senior meteorologist. "We are known as the Hurricane Hunters, but we do fly winter storms. Most people do not realize that this is a very important mission because winter storms traditionally cost more American lives each year than tropical weather.”

Although the National Hurricane Center tasks the 53rd WRS with aerial weather reconnaissance missions in the summer, the aircraft are tasked by the National Weather Service's National Center for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) for winter weather. The current agreement for the squadron is to fly up to twice each day for NCEP.

The reconnaissance flights for winter storms are conducted differently than tropical reconnaissance. The squadron averages between 6-12 winter missions each year, according to Lt. Col. Valerie Hendry, a 53rd WRS aerial reconnaissance weather officer.

"We are not heading to the eye of the storm -- we are flying ahead of the storm but often have to fly through the frontal," Hendry said. "Over the land there is radar to collect data. There are also people releasing weather balloons. Out over the Atlantic, there are no balloons or radar.”

According to the Hurricane Hunters, timing is crucial and punctuality is critical to mission success.

Unlike tropical weather system data collection, the National Weather Service only populates the forecast models twice a day with satellite data and the real-time weather data such as wind speed, barometric pressure and humidity from the weather reconnaissance aircraft.

"The winter’s storm missions are timed precisely so that data flows right into the computer models almost instantaneously," Hendry said.

The data plays a major role in the way local governments on the ground react to severe weather warnings.

"With a storm like this, the data from a flight is a big deal -- it is important that we get the extra data,” said Lt. Col. Brian Schroeder, a 53rd WRS aerial reconnaissance weather officer. “The more data the forecasters have, the better they will be able to predict the strength and path of the storm. It is important that we get out there and get that data for the forecast models.”

The squadron takes winter storms as seriously as they do a hurricane, because winter storms can cripple a community and cost lives.

"There are occasionally winter storms that have a great economic impact,” Hendry said. “Winter storms can cause power outages and then you have the rainmakers that can cause heavy flooding. They can be very damaging.”

Although the Hurricane Hunters are only flying their third winter mission of the year, they continue to stay poised and prepared to aid with tracking future storms.

"We will continue to do the mission and assist with weather reconnaissance because we are needed to stay ready and vigilant," Talbot said.

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