The Hurricane Hunters

Who would be a member of the hurricane hunter? It can be hard to believe that people would deliberately volunteer to fly through the eye of a hurricane, but there are those who do. Whether one would consider these people foolhardy or heroic, there is no doubt that the invaluable hurricane data these people transmit to weather centres throughout the US and other regions of the world has been instrumental in savings many lives and some property damage. For example, although little can be done to limit the final impact on land and fixed property, early warning can help with evacuating population and the transferance of major economic systems as well as some of the area’s more mobile assets.

However, hurricane warnings come at a cost. It is estimated that in a typical case, the cost of preparation, evacuation and lost business amounts to around $200 million. Additionally, it takes some areas, for example industrial towns, longer to prepare for a hurricane than others do. Therefore, in addition to saving lives, as Lt Colonel Lipscombe, a training officer for the “Hurricane Hunters,” observed “any way we can increase the accuracy [of prediction] and decrease the economic impact is a plus.” The task of the hurricane hunters is to provide data that will help to narrow the warning areas and improve the amount of warning time given. Where does this data come from? The answer is to be found in the middle of the hurricane itself. This is why the hurricane hunters fly regular reconnaissance missions, which can last up to eleven hours, at between 1,000 and 11,000 feet directly through the eye of a hurricane.

During the course of these trips into the eye of a hurricane, the scientists and crew on board collect data through a range of technical measuring equipment, the results of which is transmitted automatically back to the National Hurricane Centre in Miami and to other weather stations around the globe. This equipment includes a dropsonde, a small measuring instrument that is dropped from the aircraft in the eye of the storm. As it parachutes down to the ocean surface, the dropsonde records data such as temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, all of which is included in the information transmitted to the weather centres.

Believe it or not, the official hurricane hunters began life in 1944 as the result of a dare. As if Lt Colonel Joe Duckworth did not have enough danger to contend with in the middle of World War II, he decided to take on the challenge laid down and flew an AT-6 Texan training aircraft through the eye of a hurricane. Thus began the story of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, nicknamed the “Hurricane Hunters.”

Initially, the unit undertook a variety of weather reconnaissance flights to aid the metrological offices of the US and armed forces. Although this is still the case to a lesser extent, it was not until the early 1950’s that the 53rd became the predominant force in hurricane tracking, with the navy and satellites taking over many of the other weather forecasting tasks. Despite the fact that satellites might have been considered to be of more use in gathering hurricane data, as one hunter put it, “they could not get close up and personal,” thus the aircraft, their crew and their missions were still invaluable.

The history of the 53rd squadron has been quite chequered, with there being several gaps in its fifty-year plus life. In 1947, it was disbanded for three and a half years, before being resurrected again in 1951. A similar hiatus occurred again in 1960 when it ceased to exist for a further eighteen months, and again in 1991 for two years. However, like a phoenix it has kept rising from the ashes of disbandment and today it is as strong and needed a team as ever.

The team have used many aircraft during their tours of duty, including the B-17 Fortress, WB Superfortreses and even the WB-47 Stratojet, but the most favoured plane, and one that has now been in use for over forty years, is the Hercules, which has run countless missions with the squadron. Similarly, they have seen many homes in their time, including Bermuda, Georgia, Puerto Rico and England, before finally making its home at the Kessler Air Force Base in Mississippi.

Though many of us might consider that the role these “Hurricane Hunters” perform is bordering upon madness, there are thousand of people in the world today who owe their lives to the unsung heroes of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, the “Hurricane Hunters.”