Gulf Coast aircrews weather dangerous storms to gather data, save lives
As the WC-130J Hercules draws closer to a hurricane deep in the Atlantic Ocean, the navigator lines up the crew’s flight plan with the National Hurricane Center’s (NHC) information requests. Just for a moment, as the plane approaches the storm, the 20-year Hurricane Hunter veteran’s mind drifts back to a similar mission a decade ago. That storm, Hurricane Katrina, changed the way crewmembers view virtually every storm mission they fly.
“While I’m setting our computer up, it always takes me back to that normal Sunday morning in 2005,” Lt. Col. John Fox said. “We knew it was going to be a bad storm, but like so many other people, I was in the trap of thinking of Camille (a Category 5 hurricane that devastated the Mississippi coast in 1969). Nothing was ever going to be as bad as Camille, but here came Camille’s big sister. Katrina tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, John, you’re not a forecaster.’ The Katrina experience taught us that you never really know what you’re going to see.”
Although each flight is different, during a typical 10-plus-hour mission, each of the five crewmembers stay busy while on their way to the storm, inside the eye of the hurricane, and on the flight back to Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. On each mission, the crew flies through the hurricane in what they call an alpha pattern, penetrating its eyewall at least four times and collecting valuable data from each quadrant of the storm.
As “the overall boss of the aircraft,” Maj. Sean Cross, the aircraft commander, lets his co-pilot take care of the flying as he monitors the radios and the rest of the crew. While currently in his 14th season as a Hurricane Hunter, Cross has seen more than his share of hurricanes, both from the air and on the ground. Since he joined the squadron in 2001, Cross has made almost 150 “pennies,” a term crewmembers use for flights into the eyes of tropical storms and hurricanes.
Meanwhile, the rest of the crew spends their time on pre-storm checklists. They also use the satellite phone — a convenience crews didn’t have onboard in previous years — to talk with another crew on their way back from a previous hurricane mission to get pre-briefed on expected weather conditions. At the same time, they know they could face something different, maybe even considerably more intense, than what the previous crew experienced just a few hours earlier.
Daylight gradually disappears as the plane draws closer to the storm. The crew is relatively quiet as they approach the hurricane’s outer edges.
“The eyewall’s coming up crew!” Maj. Devon Meister, the pilot, announces as the plane approaches the area of about 200 miles of intense, spinning thunderstorms that whirl around the hurricane’s center. Anyone not already buckled up quickly clicks in their seat belt. The pilots are especially focused because they want to make sharp turns to ensure they reach the exact center of the storm, so they can gather the information they need. Sometimes the first encounter with the eyewall isn’t as violent as the crew might expect, but they know not to take it for granted on subsequent passes through the teeth of the hurricane.
“What you have to be careful of is that you don’t drop your guard on the next pass about 40 minutes later, because this thing is living and growing and spinning counter-clockwise,” Cross said. “The spot you went in is not going to be the same stuff you go through an hour and 40 minutes later.”
Inside the storm, the navigator and weather officer study the radar. The crew doesn’t mind flying through areas in red, but they want to avoid magenta, which usually means heavier rains and turbulence, and flashing white, which would signify severe turbulence.
As the WC-130J continues through the eyewall, radiometers on the wings gauge wind speed at the ocean’s surface every second. Meanwhile, Master Sgt. Jeff Stack, a loadmaster, watches the screen on his computer monitor while holding a cylindrical capsule in his left hand. He waits for the weather officer to give him the signal to drop the first biodegradable dropsonde that will collect the vital data on the storm as it falls attached to a parachute to the ocean surface.
The dropsonde is one of several weather instruments that measures temperature, pressure, dew point, wind speed and direction inside the hurricane, as well as the surface pressure inside the hurricane’s eye. It can directly measure at several levels in the atmosphere as it descends.
The weather officer is focused on his radar, waiting until the winds reach the maximum peak. He relies on surface wind data from the Stepped Frequency Microwave Radiometer (SFMR) — which continuously measures the winds at the ocean’s surface directly below the aircraft — to tell him when to give the signal the loadmaster is waiting to hear to release the dropsonde.
During the 2005 season, only a few aircraft had the instrument available, but now each of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron airplanes have the SFMR, nicknamed “the Smurf.” This constant measurement of surface winds gives the NHC a considerably more complete picture of the storm and can also determine rainfall rates within a storm system.
“Now we’re able to map the entire surface wind field underneath a hurricane and provide very accurate data on the strongest winds and where they are in the storm,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Talbot, the 53rd WRS chief meteorologist. “The exciting thing about this instrument is you don’t have to rely on visually seeing what the winds are, or just getting a single point sample. You have hundreds and hundreds of samples of what the wind speeds are, and you can see as the storm intensifies or weakens, and that directly relates into the warnings that go out.”
Finally, the SFMR shows the winds at their peak, and the weather officer gives the signal to the loadmaster. A few seconds after the loadmaster releases the dropsonde into a tube through the bottom of the aircraft, it descends attached to a tiny parachute toward the ocean and immediately begins sending data back to the plane on the way to the NHC.
Suddenly, the rain and winds cease, and the sky is now blue above the plane, which is surrounded by magnificently white and puffy clouds — what the crewmembers call “the stadium effect.”
“We’re breaking out now,” the pilot announces to the rest of the crew. “We’re in the eye.”
“Turn left 10 degrees,” the weather officer tells the pilot, so the plane can reach the direct center. Once at the spot where the wind readings fall to zero, he tells the loadmaster to drop another dropsonde. The crew can then connect the two coordinates and refine forecasts on the storm’s movement and direction.
Once out of the storm, the crew works on their post-storm checklists and making sure the NHC has all the information retrieved during the mission. Some crewmembers are already thinking about the impact the information will have on weather forecasts and if people in the storm’s path will heed the warnings.
As each hurricane season begins, Cross reflects on the 2005 storms, including one conversation he had with a fellow Gulf Coast resident who had just discovered his house was destroyed. The man covered his mouth with his hand, and Cross tried to comfort him by placing his hand on the man’s shoulder. Cross told him he could rebuild, but was informed the family had no insurance.
“It’s really hard when you do this years on end, because you know there’s always going to be somebody standing with their hand over their mouth because everything they owned is gone.”
Katrina remains the costliest hurricane in U.S. history and the deadliest since 1928, with more than 1,800 deaths, mostly due to the 30-foot storm surge that breeched the levees in New Orleans and flooded 80 percent of the city. But Katrina was only one of four hurricanes that reached Category 5 status on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale for winds higher than 175 mph. The busiest season on record produced three of the five most intense hurricanes in the past decade, according to NHC data.
Fortunately, this year isn’t forecast to be as devastating as the 2005 hurricane season was — a year that set records for tropical storms and the most major hurricanes to hit the U.S. The Hurricane Hunters remain ready for whatever the season — which continues through Nov. 30 — throws at them. Less than a dozen 53rd WRS members remain from a decade ago, when Katrina damaged or destroyed about 30 percent of the homes of squadron members, including Fox’s.
If he ever needs a reminder not to take a storm for granted, Fox just recalls a flight 1,000 feet above the ravaged Mississippi coast from Houston to Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia, where they flew the rest of their storm missions before returning to Keesler AFB in November.
“Normally, there is some talk and some banter on the aircraft. This was dead silence,” Fox said. “I remember how quiet the airplane was. You were kind of punch-drunk looking at that. In our little part of the world, Katrina was like a house fire that everybody suffered, when you realized what was really important.”
On missions inside the most powerful storms like Katrina, crewmembers often reflect on how the data they gather will affect advisories and warnings that help people on the ground stay safe.
“You just hope that because we risk our lives to get this information out there to help forecast models to put the warnings out there, that people listen and pay attention,” Cross said.