The Hurricane Hunters

The Navy’s World Famous “Hurricane Hunters” of Weather Reconnaissance Squadron FOUR (VW-4) conducted weather reconnaissance missions in the skies of the Atlantic and the Caribbean Oceans from 1953 to 1975. With six Lockheed WC-121 Super Constellation aircraft, this distinguished squadron of Naval aviators, aerographers and scientists made daring and dangerous penetrations into the center of hurricanes, tropical storms, and even Nor’easter snow storms. Their mission was to provide early warning to anyone, anywhere in the path of these dangerous and powerful weather systems.

During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the squadron’s aircraft consisted of a long-range aircraft known fondly as the “Super Connie”, or simply as the “Connie.” Like a classy and elegant woman, these aircraft were sleek, forgiving and flexible. Equipped with additional wing tip fuel tanks, they had a range of some 3,850 nautical miles, able to stay aloft for over 24 hours with a crew of 28 if need be. During the 1970’s the aging and tired Connies were replaced with another specially modified Lockheed aircraft, the P-3 Orion. Designated the WP-3, four Orions were place into the hurricane hunting service until the squadron was finally decommissioned in 1975.

The crew’s main source of intelligence was a high-powered search radar system featuring a rotating parabolic antenna mounted in a radome beneath the belly of the fuselage. Able to take in over 250 nautical miles in a single sweep, this radar could easily reveal the most intricate features of a hurricanes eyewall or seascape below. On top of the aircraft, in another dome that resembles a popsicle was another powerful radar system, one that could look upward towards the clouds and expose the vertical features of the huge thunderstorms that form the outer bands of a hurricane.

Inside, the aircraft carried highly skilled aviators: pilots, flight engineers, flight electricians, radio operators, navigators, aerographers and radar operators. When in the throes of penetrating the tempestuous eyewall of a hurricane, the aircraft operated under the command of the Combat Information Center Officer, or CICO. His responsibility was to guide the pilots, blinded by the driving rains and darkness, safely into the calm and clear eye using the radar systems available. Eyewall penetrations were made at all times of the day or night, at altitudes as low as 400 feet above the raging seas.

The most famous hurricanes are, tragically, those that have caused the greatest loss of life and property. The six Hurricane Hunter aircraft of the 70’s bore the names of the greatest hurricanes of the prior decades: Dora, Inez, Blanche, Faith, Cindy, Betsy and the Category 5 storm that devastated the Gulf Coast in 1969, Camille. All six aircraft have since been lost to history as they were retired from service following the arrival of the WP-3s, accompanied by significant improvements in earth orbiting weather satellites.

In 1969 the Hurricane Hunters participated in Project Stormfury the only successful attempt by man to control the weather on a grand scale. Project Stormfury was a joint effort begun in 1962 with the government’s Environmental Science and Services Administration (ESSA). Over a period of several days, aircraft from the Navy, Marines, and ESSA made multiple sorties into Hurricane Debbie, some dropping canisters containing silver iodine into the eyewall clouds in an attempt to cool down the storm’s heat engine and alter its composition. The success of this mission is mostly considered as uncertain, as the observed weather changes could have been attributed to other natural causes. Nevertheless, the attempt required hundreds of hours of flight and the careful coordination of over ten aircraft aloft in stormy skies at one time. A truly remarkable feat by any measure.

The idea of flying through the eyewall of a hurricane has been romanticized by some and characterized as craziness by other. The truth is that it takes a special kind of courage, trust, and character to fly into the abyss and return safely time after time with high spirits and camaraderie found nowhere else in the maritime service. At times, the roar of the winds drowned out the roar of the mighty Rolls Royce engines, and drifting backwards in flight because the eyewall winds exceed the forward speed of the aircraft was always an interesting experience. Returning from within the eye was sometimes interesting, as well, often with pilots and engineers struggling to find new ways to keep a Connie flying under aerodynamic conditions that weren’t written in the operating manual.

Sometimes, I am reminded of a familiar quote taken from the movie “Alien”, albeit slightly modified: “In the eyewall, no one can hear you scream.” But then, you would have to have been there.