Dangerous Weather Hits Home for Air Force’s Hurricane Hunters
By Randy Roughton
During Air Force Major Sean Cross’ first flight into the storm that became Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, he and his WC-130J Hercules crew joked and asked themselves why they were even tasked for the mission. “There was absolutely nothing to it at that point,” he said.
By his second flight, the jokes stopped and were soon replaced by concern for their own families and homes after the hurricane crossed South Florida and entered the Gulf of Mexico on a direct path toward the Mississippi coast, where the Hurricane Hunters of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron are based.
Katrina was only the most extreme example of the dilemma Hurricane Hunter crew members face while collecting data in storms that sometimes threaten their homes and loved ones in south Mississippi.
Eight years after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in Louisiana and Mississippi, killing more than 1,800 people and causing more than $95 billion in damage, Cross has even more at stake as he begins his 13th season with the 53rd WRS. While he’s flying through storms, he now has a young son, Cooper, and his wife, Apryl Ready, back at their home in Biloxi.
“We have crew members all across the Gulf Coast, so at any one time, anyone in the squadron can be directly affected by a storm,” Cross said. “The tough part is when you’re looking at the forecast as you’re coming in to fly. Then, we go fly, and we’re basically dropping crumbs along a trail as we’re tracking the storm. We look at where we live and where this track is going and where it’s shifting, and we’re playing mind games with ourselves, basically trying to wish this storm somewhere else.
“No. 1, you’ve got to stay focused on the safety of the crew and the plane. But No. 2, you’re thinking about the people on the ground and the lives that are going to be affected.”
Storm preparation begins earlier in the Cross home than most of their fellow Gulf Coast residents. While most coastal residents are trying to get as far inland as possible the day or two before a hurricane reaches the Biloxi beaches, Cross is flying into the teeth of the storm itself. Hurricane Hunters’ preparations cannot wait until a hurricane reaches the Gulf.
“We have to sit down with his calendar and my work calendar and try to clear everything from July to October,” said Ready, a Biloxi attorney. “We don’t plan any vacations during that time. We don’t plan any trips, and I try not to set any trials. I know that he’s going to be gone most of that time, I’m going to have Cooper by myself and I don’t need the extra stress of having a trial or a trip on top of that.”
The family uses a clothes hamper to store important documents, laptop computers, portable hard drives, and other important items such as Monkey, Cooper’s prized stuffed animal. Cross makes sure his family has a plan in place and his wife knows what to do. The planning eases his mind, allowing him to concentrate on the storm, the plane and his crew during hurricane missions.
“As a crew member, it’s easier on me knowing that I have a plan, and we put that plan into action sooner rather than later,” Cross said. “The last thing I need to … worry about while I’m flying a plane is when Apryl is going to leave. I’d rather know she and Cooper are out of the way, and she knows that, too. She doesn’t want me to be thinking about them while we’re in a storm.”
Cross transferred to the 53rd WRS in 2001 from the 919th Special Operations Wing at Duke Field near Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base. Three years later, he flew into Hurricane Ivan as the Category 4 storm headed for the Florida Panhandle where his parents, Henry and Jerry Cross, live.
By 2005, Cross was painfully aware of how devastating Katrina was going to be. He told his wife and friends what to expect, though they didn’t believe him until they saw the devastation left after the storm passed.
“My wife had never experienced a direct hit from a major hurricane before,” Cross said. “I told her the coast is not prepared for what’s going to happen here. This is probably going to be a direct hit on the Biloxi area. The coast is going to be changed forever.”
At least a half dozen 53rd WRS members lost their homes during Katrina, and the squadron relocated to Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia, for the rest of the season.
Cross’ family put their evacuation plan into action last year as Hurricane Isaac bore down on the Mississippi coast. The squadron evacuated 10 WC-130Js to Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base in Houston, Texas. On August 28, the day before the seventh anniversary of Katrina, the 200-mile-wide hurricane made landfall near the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, 75 miles south of New Orleans, bringing high winds and significant rainfall to Biloxi.
“I’m in the Gulf flying through Isaac knowing that Apryl and Cooper are taking care of the house by themselves,” Cross said. “I spent the night in Houston, biting my nails wanting to know if I could get back [to Biloxi]. Fortunately, we had enough crew members willing to stay with the aircraft and fly the mission, and I came home the day before landfall to get Apryl and Cooper. We headed to Florida, out of harm’s way.”
Now that they have a child, Cross and Ready are even more resolute to make sure they’re not in a situation that could jeopardize their lives. One of Ready’s friends and her 4-year-old daughter stayed in their hurricane-damaged house after Katrina, and Cross saw the impact the experience had on the child.
“I can only put myself in [Cooper’s] shoes, to come home as a 3 ½ -year-old, and everything he has is destroyed,” Cross said. “The most important thing to him is probably … Monkey. If you can plan ahead and take something that is a valuable thing like a special toy for your child, it makes a huge difference in the long run.”
When Cooper is old enough to understand, they also plan to talk to him about what his father does for a living and about hurricanes.
“I remember my parents telling me the story about Hurricane Camille (in 1969) and how they lost everything,” Ready said. “That’s how you learn—from stories other people tell of their experiences with hurricanes. We will sit him down, tell him stories and show pictures to tell him he has to prepare just like we do to get out of the way when a storm is coming.”
–Randy Roughton writes for the Air Force News Service and Airman Magazine.
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