Every hurricane season, they suit up and fly into danger to save lives along the Gulf Coast.
Commanded by USAF(R) officer Maj. Kendall Dunn, the eight-person crew of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron stormed into Brownsville Thursday as part of their pre-hurricane season campaign to help raise awareness — and urge preparedness — in the Rio Grande Valley for the upcoming storm season.
The Squadron, a component of the 403rd Wing of the United States Air Force Reserve, is located at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, and is the only operational unit in the world that flies weather reconnaissance on a routine basis.
To perform their mission, the Hurricane Hunters utilize 10 WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft equipped with 21st-century meteorological data-gathering instruments. These versatile turboprop aircraft are equipped with an unprecedented variety of scientific instrumentation, radars and recording systems for remote sensing measurements of the atmosphere, the earth and its environment.
The 53rd’s WC-130Js ferry in and out of the storm, pinpointing and relaying the hurricane’s exact location and other data to the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Fla. Orbiting satellites complete the task, providing fresh pictures every few minutes.
WC-130Js include a basic crew of five: pilot, co-pilot, evaluator navigator, flight meteorologist and weather reconnaissance loadmaster. The pilot serves as the aircraft commander, and along with the co-pilot, man the flight controls.
The evaluator navigator keeps track of the turbo aircraft’s position and movement, and monitors radar to avoid tornadic activity spawned by the hurricane. The flight meteorologist acts as the flight director and observes and records meteorological activity at flight level using a computer that encodes weather data every 30 seconds. The weather reconnaissance loadmaster collects and records vertical meteorological data using a parachute-borne sensor known as a “dropsondes”.
The cache of dropsondes are ejected from the plane by compressed air and descend to the ocean surface on parachutes. As the sensor-packed cylinders drop, they use global positioning system (GPS) to give constant reports of their location, as well as details of air pressure, temperature, humidity, and wind speed. This device measures and encodes weather data down to the ocean surface, and continue to broadcast from the ocean surface “until they drown.”
Since 2003, the 53rd has continued its mission of aerial reconnaissance and added a new weather-related mission using the WC-103Js to drop buoys of impending tropical storms.
In 2004, the unit started training to support tactical airlift missions in addition to the unit’s weather mission.
Aircraft commander Maj. Dunn explained that piloting the 130-J into a hurricane is like having a six-ton gorilla jumping up-and-down on the cockpit.” Dunn recalls flying into Hurricane Maria:
“The wind and the rain were so intense it drowned out the roar of the engines.” Maj. Dunn continued, “it was like going thorough a 200-miles-per-hour car wash.”
The flight evaluator-navigator, Lt. Col Phillip Dobson, described what the ride into a hurricane as “kind of like riding in a fast, malfunctioning elevator that’s being shaken violently from side-to-side, through the eye wall, and then the ride smoothes-out.”
When asked what the most rewarding part of the job is Lt. Col Dobson stated, “When you grow up on the Gulf Coast, and then realize that every day when I go to work I’m helping save people’s lives and property, it makes it all worthwhile.”
Maj. Dunn, who began his early career piloting Blackhawk helicopters, emphasized, “Whether the crew consists of five or fifteen members, every mission — every storm — is different.”
“Each one of us has an integral function,:” the commander mused, “but, in the end, sometimes you just have to ‘go for it’ and enjoy the rising sun even after you’ve been flying all night.”
Despite heavy damage to their home station caused by Hurricane Katrina, the unit continued its weather reconnaissance mission without missing a single assignment.