The Hurricane Hunters

It’s 1955. A hurricane hunter aircraft heads into the center of Hurricane Janet in the Caribbean. Armed with basic radar and scopes for measuring waves and wind, the team is collecting important meteorological data for the Weather Bureau. The 9 crewmen and 2 journalists were never heard from again, nor was the aircraft ever recovered. Hurricane Janet was a Category 5 storm at landfall.

It’s 1974. An aircraft, located at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, was sent to collect weather data on Typhoon Bess. The aircraft and mission were labeled call sign Swan 38. The base lost contact with Swan 38 when it made its second pass into the typhoon eye wall to set a positional fix (location). There were never any radio transmissions and the aircraft and crew were never recovered. The crew of 6 is considered killed in action.

These two stories represent the extreme challenge and danger involved in hurricane hunting. These men and women take on the most powerful force of nature to gain data to aid everyone who lives within the path of these monster storms. Yes, it’s a challenge. I’m sure it’s a complete rush. And truly, it’s incredible that so few hurricane hunters have been lost.

Imagine this. In 1944, well before the time of satellite weather analysis, a hurricane is approaching the East Coast of the United States. The majority of the coastal communities remain ignorant of the menace lurking in the Atlantic Ocean. Nearly everyone along the coastline will have less than a day to evacuate before a killer storm hits. Now, roll forward to 2008. We now have special planes and dedicated Air Force Reserve and NOAA pilots who fly regular hurricane hunter missions from the mid-Atlantic Ocean to the Hawaiian Island from June 1 to November 30 every year. We typically are given 2-3 days to evacuate coastal areas before a hurricane strikes.

The art of hurricane hunting had humble beginnings. The first actual flight into a storm occurred in 1943 and was done as a bet. After World War II, many Navy pilots chose to broaden their careers by becoming hurricane hunters. These daring individuals would fly into hurricanes and collect data for the Weather Bureau. Both the Navy and Air Force had hurricane hunter aircraft. Weather analysis was performed with basic radar, visual examination of hurricanes, and plane drift to measure wind speed. Hurricane hunters would also measure the storms geographic position and intensity.

Today, Hurricane Hunter aircraft are loaded with high-tech weather equipment. These brave crewmen fly into a hurricane, not above or around it. A typical crew consists of 6 members; aircraft commander, co-pilot, flight engineer, navigator, weather officer and a dropsonde system operator. Dropsondes are metal canisters that are released into a storm to measure temperature, barometric pressure, winds, and humidity. Flights can last longer than 10 hours, with information being relayed back to the National Hurricane Center for up-to-the-minute analysis by weather forecasters.

Hurricane hunter’s are not simply the men and women inside the aircraft. The aircraft itself is an integral part of the team. The Hurricane Hunter’s are currently stationed as part of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, MS. Their standard aircraft is a WC-130J outfitted with every weather instrument imaginable for measuring all aspects of a hurricane. This aircraft is capable of staying aloft for over 18 hours. NOAA hurricane hunters are based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. These NOAA aircraft are basically flying laboratories used for weather surveillance and research.