Last week I had the privilege of touring the United States Air Force Hurricane Hunters headquarters at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, MS. I was guided by my good friend, 1st Lieutenant Garrett Black of the USAF 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. This is Lt. Black’s first year as a meteorologist with the Hurricane Hunters, and he has already flown through storms in multiple oceanic basins including Lester and Madeline in the Central Pacific and Nicole in the Atlantic. The first stop on our tour was something you probably have at your job: an office.
Unfortunately, there’s plenty of desk work as well for the Hurricane Hunters. In addition to flying into storms to collect weather data, the squadron’s responsibilities include a variety of tasks such as mission planning, quality checking archived reconnaissance data, calibrating aircraft weather instruments such as the SFMR (more on that later), and continually tweaking the hurricane hunters training qualification course developed in-house. Although Lt. Black had the day off, he arrived in uniform so that “we don’t get shot at” while we’re out on the airfield checking out the planes. In the photo above, he is requesting permission to bring my civilian ass along.
BOOM! I had no idea just how gigantic these C-130s were until seeing them up close. Although most fleets of these Lockheed aircrafts don’t come equipped with the meteorological instruments necessary to gather hurricane data, C-130s are commonly used by other branches of the US military for transporting personnel and equipment over long distances. The Hurricane Hunters use the latest and greatest version of C-130 known as the “J-model.” Since they are specifically designed for weather missions, the full name of the planes in this fleet is the WC-130J Weatherbird.
The side view shows off the Hurricane Hunters logo on the tail along with the retractable loading door in the back. If we were filming an action movie, this scene would be me speeding my Humvee away from the bad guys and onto the ramp right as the plane lifts off.
Lookin’ good, Lt. Black! Can you believe he doesn’t own a pair of aviator sunglasses? Talk about a missed opportunity. Also worth noting in this photo, the nose of the plane comes equipped with a weather radar allowing the Hurricane Hunters to get a clear picture of what they’re flying through.
This little doohickey on the side of the plane is the hygrometer which measures the atmospheric moisture content using a laser and mirror sensor. The hygrometer continually warms and cools the ambient air causing fog to evaporate and condense on the mirror thereby disrupting the reflected laser light. This allows the instrument to pinpoint the exact dewpoint temperature.
Believe it or not, measuring wind is also important when gathering hurricane information. Not pictured here, but underneath the wings, is another cutting edge weather instrument called the Stepped Frequency Microwave Radiometer (SFMR). The SFMR is a downward-pointing passive light sensor that measures the brightness temperature of the ocean surface. Surface winds along with precipitation diffuse light from being captured by the instrument. Applying a known tropical thermodynamic structure and SFMR collected brightness temperatures allows the calculation of both surface wind speeds and precipitation rates. The specifics of these calculations are beyond the pay grade I receive from your AtmoLife subscription fees, but you can read more about them in Uhlhorn and Black’s 2007 Monthly Weather Review publication (different Black).
Wind speed data is computed by the SFMR algorithms in 10-second intervals, but only the 30-second averages, which are used for categorizing the storms, are sent to the NHC and the general public. The Hurricane Hunters are the only people in the world who will ever see the 10-second gust measurements.
Soon after examining the instruments outside the aircraft, we climbed on inside. Looking toward the back from the middle of the plane shows this WC-130J is still fully equipped to transport dozens of people. The center sets can be removed for transporting cargo, and the side bench seats provide adequate napability for off-duty pilots on the longer flights.
This is where the magic happens. Here Lt. Black, the weather officer, sits aboard reconnaissance flights. This particular WC-130J even has a small window for him to look out of! Unfortunately, that isn’t the case for all Hurricane Hunter planes. Window or no window, here he reads the data from all the instruments as it comes in while using his satellite phone relay the information back to the National Hurricane Center. He can use this satellite phone to call anyone from anywhere in the world, but my phone hasn’t gotten a single ring yet.
Next to the weather officer in the middle of the plane sits the crew chief who coordinates the missions and helps prepare the dropsondes. The sondes are loaded into the canister pictured here and are shot toward the surface below using a pressure vacuum. In addition to gathering temperature, humidity, and pressure data along their descent, the dropsondes use GPS triangulation to measure wind speeds via displacement. This dropsonde wind speed data is crucial to validating the SFMR measurements.
Is this a lot of buttons? This looks like a lot of buttons. I could never be a pilot because my fat clumsy fingers would frequently push the wrong one.
Since it gets dark and lonely in the middle of the plane on the long mission flights, Lt. Black often joins the pilots and navigator in the cockpit when given a break between station manning duties. Behind the pilot chairs lies a nice bench seat allowing the other crew members to join.
Another little known fact about the Hurricane Hunters: they also fly through winter storms. With limited weather instrumentation offshore, reconnaissance flights through nor’easters provide forecasters crucial synoptic information about the approaching snowpocalypse. Hurricanes may have an off-season, but the Hunters do not.
Special thanks to Lt. Black , The USAF 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, and the other officers in charge at Keesler AFB for providing the tour and clearance!