Tropical weather is one of the many different types of weather we cover at The Weather Channel. However, unlike severe or winter weather, a tropical cyclone (the generic name we give for any type of tropical system) starts over the open waters of the ocean, where we have very little data. Satellites have tremendously improved tropical forecasting, but we’re still left with a question – what’s going on within the system? Until it approaches the coast, we have very little of that data.
Fortunately, we have brave men and women who are willing to help us answer that question. They’re willing to fly – that’s right, fly – into a tropical system to give us real-time weather data! Meet the Hurricane Hunters, comprised of a U.S. Air Force Reserve squadron (based near Biloxi, Mississippi) and a NOAA fleet (based near Tampa, Florida). These planes – totaling 12 between the two fleets – are the only aircraft that routinely fly into tropical storms or hurricanes. In addition to these aircraft, NOAA utilizes a small jet to sample the atmosphere around a hurricane, and other research aircraft occasionally perform atmospheric sampling missions near tropical systems. Overall, the data obtained by these crews gives the National Hurricane Center valuable insight into the workings of tropical cyclones, which improves their ability to forecast and warn the public.
A WC-130J Hurricane Hunter plane
I recently had the opportunity to visit with a crew from the Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron when they made a visit to the Atlanta area, and take a flight on their WC-130J Hurricane Hunter plane. It was a fantastic experience! The crew was great, answering all of our questions and allowing us to take a plethora of pictures and videos.
A closer look at the flight crew’s instruments and controls
Taking off from Atlanta – notice how quickly we took off since the plane was empty!
Looking out over west Georgia, southwest of Atlanta
Once the aircraft is flying in a tropical storm or hurricane, the two members of the crew in the cargo hold gain importance. The ARWO (aerial reconnaissance weather officer) functions as the eyes of the crew within the storm. They’ll monitor the weather data the aircraft is gathering to determine the route of the flight. Their goal is to locate the center of the storm, along with gathering other information as needed by the NHC. While the pilot is flying the aircraft and will physically make the airplane move, the ARWO will be the one who directs them to make the move.
This is the navigator. He monitors the radar and helps the flight crew navigate their way.
Above West Point Lake, along the Georgia-Alabama line
Also in the back with the ARWO is the loadmaster. Their job duties are similar to any other C-130 flight (exterior aircraft inspection pre-flight, tying down cargo in the hold), but with the addition of handling the release of dropsondes within the storm. A dropsonde is a vertical weather profiler, gathering weather data through the atmosphere, but while it falls instead of rising like a weather balloon. This data, along with the other data obtained by the flight, is transmitted by satellite back to the NHC to provide the most up-to-date information possible. Given that the Hurricane Hunters can fly 24/7 when necessary, the NHC’s forecast is dramatically improved by the presence of a Hurricane Hunters flight within a hurricane!
Inside the back of the plane
I am very thankful to the crew of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron for allowing me to explore their aircraft and take a ride. It was an experience I won’t forget – maybe one day I’ll be able to fly a full mission with them!