The Hurricane Hunters are technically the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron of the 403rd Wing of the United States Air Force Reserve. This squadron is a force of about 150 personnel and 10 WC-130J aircraft that are based at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi and deployed from the Pacific to the Atlantic in 3-4 aircraft detachments. The men and women who make up this squadron are actually Air Force Reservists who give their time so that thousands of people’s lives can be saved and millions, if not billions of dollars’ worth of property can be properly safeguarded when a hurricane is bearing down on them. These Hunters provide around 95% of the actual weather data and readings for any given storm since 1944. Surprisingly, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) only usually skirts around the storm with their smaller aircraft for some storm tracking and weather modeling purposes and occasionally flies into the storms for other data collection purposes.
On Oct 3, Air Force Reservist Lt. Colonel Keith Gibson and his team planned to pierce what was believed to be a category 3 storm. I had the rare privilege to fly with Gibson and his team on this flight into Hurricane Joaquin.
Given about 12 hours’ notice, I made my way to Savannah, Georgia where we’d depart for about a 10 hour flight to hunt the hurricane. Sparing the details of my travels, I made it to the appropriately named “Hunter Army Airfield,” which is home to several interesting groups, including the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment – better known as the Night Stalkers (these are the guys who dropped the SEALs on Bin Laden). The Hurricane Hunters were forward deployed here so that they could get more airtime in the storm.
The flight crew was made up of six very senior Air Force guys, the lowest rank was a chief master sergeant (the highest enlisted level of leadership in the Air Force), then a major and no less than four lieutenant colonels. The Hurricane Hunters are the only squadron of pilots that require new pilots to be trained in actual hurricanes before being able to pilot the aircraft as the pilot in command. Gibson was the pilot in command, and also happens to be the operations commander for the 53rd. in the right seat sat Lt. Col. Brad Boudreaux (some may recognize the last name, as he’s the son of the creator of a well-known diaper rash cream, Boudreaux’s Butt Paste). His younger brother also happens to fly in second position with the Air Force’s Thunderbirds. The navigation station was manned on this flight by none other than the Squadron Commander, Lt. Col. Matt Muha. Overseeing the flight deck operations was Maj. Chris Harris. At the two weather stations were Lt. Col. Jon Talbot, the head weather reconnaissance officer for the squadron and CMSgt. Rick Cumbo, the weather reconnaissance loadmaster. This was a bittersweet flight for Talbot, as he will be retiring from the Air Force Reserve in July and it may very well have been his last hurricane hunting expedition. Cumbo deployed specialized equipment known as “dropsondes,” or just “sondes,” and monitored their activity on their way down through the storm. Watching over the civilian media (two others and myself on this mission) was Master Sgt. Brian Lamar, the 403rd’s Public Affairs non-commissioned Officer.
After a short flight briefing we all took our places in the C-130 and launched at around 3 AM. We cruised at about 24,000 feet and at about 260kts until it was time to hit the storm, about 600 miles southwest of Bermuda. We then dropped down to 10,000 feet and 180 kts (about 207 mph), where we remained for the duration of our encounter with Joaquin. In the many hours in the storm we made three figure eight passes through the outer parts of the storm and into the eye and then through to the other side. All the flying is done by hand, with autopilot only holding altitude, since the aircraft has to move with the storm.
While we were buffeted around a little, principally in the south-eastern part of the eye, you’d be surprised to know that we had a pretty smooth ride most of the time. Of course realizing that we’re in a 80,000 lbs. aircraft (half its max weight) powered by 4 engines putting out a combined thrust of 18,800 horsepower helps to frame the perspective of the platform we were in, in relation to a storm that was roaring along at up to 160 mile per hour winds (as a reference point, my personal aircraft, a Piper Arrow 2, weighs in at about 2,600 lbs.). In fact, I’m pleased to say that I was on the flight that upgraded the storm from a category 3 hurricane to a high category 4. The turbulence usually occurs in the areas of the storm that are rapidly destabilizing – either building or dissipating. The rest of the storm was like flying in any airliner with some ups and downs. I won’t diminish the buffeting though, as we went from 1 G (normal earth gravity) to some points of 0.3 G (0.0 is space) up to 1.6 G pretty quick. We were originally scheduled to make four passes, but all aboard were relieved to learn that this was revised to only three.
As the pilots performed their duty in hauling us through Joaquin, meteorologist Talbot and Cumbo monitored the storm. Cumbo shot at the storm by launching the dropsondes through the bottom of the aircraft. These sondes are essentially small cardboard and plastic tubes slightly longer and wider than the cardboard tube in roll of paper towels that measure the wind speed (both at the surface and at altitude), direction, barometric pressure, and relative humidity as they travel through the storm. They have tiny GPS sensors that relay their exact location in the storm as they go down. Once Cumbo collected the data, Talbot then relayed the information in real time to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida whose forecasters then crunch the data and relay it worldwide to whomever needs it. Talbot also directs the pilots as to where to go next to collect the best data during flight. Talbot said that the Hunters’ job is to “Provide a now-cast, this is what’s going on right now to those people where the storm is going to make landfall.”
As is always the case with anything military, the phrase most apt for the flight was “hours of boredom punctuated by minutes of terror.” Thanks to the great people aboard, I can’t really call any moments terror filled, but it certainly hit good adventure levels for me. One interesting moment during flight occurred when we experienced ice buildup on the aircraft surfaces. This occurs when an aircraft flies through areas of super cooled water vapor that create ice buildup on the airplane. This can be a major problem for planes ill-equipped for this occurrence. Thankfully the C-130 has a range of anti-icing countermeasures on board. Nothing like hearing chunks of ice breaking off the airplane to make you sit up and take notice. Upon exiting the storm an alarm was heard, but I wasn’t told what it was until after our arrival on the ground. Turns out it was an alarm indicating a bleed air valve wasn’t operating correctly. Not to get overly technical, but this valve permits very hot engine air to exit the engine and prevents overheating of the engine. Failure of this valve could have caused significant damage. Thankfully, our flight continued normally and returned to Hunter Army Airfield at a little after 1:30 PM and maintained the squadron’s over 10,000 hours of accident free flying. The plane and crew will return to hunt another hurricane without issue.