By Air Force Tech. Sgt. Christopher Carranza
The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, aka the “Hurricane Hunters,“ is the only Air Force unit tasked with the mission of collecting data from the inside of a storm and flying into the eye of hurricanes.
According to Maj. Kendall Dunn, with the exception of the Hurricane Hunters’s plane, all aircraft are forbidden to fly into severe weather by the Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
"We fly into weather when all other aircraft have to stay at least 20 miles out to avoid it,” Dunn said. “Flying into storms, this is our type of combat.”
Dunn has been flying with the Air Force Reserve since 2013, with approximately 1,500 flight hours in the Lockheed Martin WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft (also called the “Hurricane Hunter”) and has been into 25 named storms to date. Fun fact: Lockheed Martin is a USO corporate partner!
Every mission requires two pilots, serving as the aircraft commander and one serving as the co-pilot. The aircraft commander is responsible for all crew members, their safety and overall mission accomplishment.
“Safety is the overall mission end state,” Dunn said. “The aircraft commander has the ultimate decision, but we do whatever we can to accomplish the mission and try to meet all National Hurricane Center requests.”
Adding to the safety of the weather mission are aerial reconnaissance weather officers (ARWOs), such as Capt. Julie Fantaske, who has been a reserve citizen airman for 16 years.
Fantaske said that when the pilots are busy handling the airplane through severe weather, flying can become intense and ARWOs are there to assist when necessary.
“Even though the navigator [position] has gone away in many other platforms, we’re an extra measure of safety,” Fantaske said.
“We’re an extra set of eyes, and we are able to call things out and interject when needed, and it’s cool to be a part of such an important mission.”
ARWOs are responsible for preparing flight plans, which include routes, headings, checkpoints and times. During flight, they operate from their station using equipment such as GPS, radio and radar systems that assists in guiding the aircraft through weather.
“We all work closely together, because we have a limited window of time to get to a storm and collect data for the hurricane center’s forecasts,” Dunn said.
“The weather officer [ARWO] is our go-between for us and the hurricane center.”
The ARWO acts like a flight director in a storm, by continuously monitoring atmospheric data collected from the aircraft’s sensors. This data is checked for accuracy and is used to guide the aircraft into the center of the storm.
“For most of us it’s really hard to fathom the responsibility you have,” Maj. Tobi Baker, an ARWO.
“You know you’re acting like a mission director on the plane and you’re actually inside of a storm as you’re collecting all this information. You’re technically the tip of the spear for the emergency management services. The stuff we start with here ends up being in the products that possibly save millions of lives and assets.”
Baker said that being an ARWO is a very rare career that not many get the chance to experience.
“As an ARWO, this opportunity is unique, because you can say you’re one in 20 in the world that does your job. You get to experience something that mother nature produces, that not many others get to see with their naked eye,” Baker said.
“There’s nothing like breaking through the eye-wall and have an open sky above you and being encompassed by a bowl of clouds around you that has so much destructive power.”
After penetrating into a storm, the ARWO directs when and where dropsonde sensors are released.
Dropsonde sensors are used to collect information such as temperature, pressure, wind directing and wind speed from various locations inside of a storm. These sensors then transmit those observations via satellite to the National Hurricane Center.
The loadmaster, who doubles as a dropsonde operator launches the parachute-rigged device from the WC-130J using a dropsonde tube.
Master Sgt. Chris Becvar said that loadmasters receive a two-week in-house training to be a dropsonde systems operator, where they learn basic weather terminology, the computer station and tube operations.
“Every storm is different so the number of dropsondes used varies,” Becvar said. “My favorite part of the job is getting different pieces of cargo and fitting it together like a puzzle, like ‘Tetris.’”
Although the crew members have different positions and responsibilities, they all said the most rewarding part of the mission is the real-time mission impact.
“The (weather) mission and the level of responsibility we have to the public is a tall order that we take seriously,” said Dunn. “There is no other job that I would rather have.”
- This story originally appeared on DVIDS.net. It has been edited for USO.org, where it originally appeared in 2019. It has been updated in 2020.