With hurricane season just beginning, the five airman-crew from the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron expects a busy few months. Twenty aircrews belong to the squadron stationed at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi — the Defense Department's only manned weather reconnaissance unit. Of the 53rd's 10 WC-130Js, three can fly in different storms simultaneously.
"Once we go through [a storm], the weather center can actually increase their accuracy by 25 percent," Maj. Brad Roundtree, squadron pilot and crew's commander of the WC-130J, tail number 5307, told reporters Tuesday.
There were 11 tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic in 2015. Hurricane Joaquin reached Category 4 status, with 155 mph wind speeds. Members of the 53rd braved the winds, flying figure eights right through the storm.
Still, each of the aircrews knows its limits. For Staff Sgt. Jesse Jordan, Hurricane Patricia left him a little rattled.
"We typically go into turbulence," the 53rd WRS loadmaster said of the Category 5 hurricane. Patricia hit speeds of 215 mph as it climbed up western Mexico. But "during this hurricane, we needed to drop two dropsondes in quick succession," Jordan said, referring to a buoy that collects data on wind speeds, dew point, pressure and temperature. Dozens can be dropped on any given six- to 10-hour flight.
To move just 2 or 3 feet to get the buoy in its casing, Jordan said he was basically levitating through the aircraft.
"I don't really get the jitters until that first big wave of turbulence," he said. "After you've done this a few times, it's more exciting than scary ... but still scary."
The Hurricane Hunters respond to storms from Hawaii in the Pacific to the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean.
The crew will fly to a maximum 10,000 feet, but can get as low as 2,000. Using enhanced equipment during the reconnaissance mission, the aircraft can get readings right off the ocean's surface without having to fly that low.
The crew uses a passive wind sensor, called a stepped frequency microwave radiometer, which allows them to look past the clouds. "It judges what temperatures are coming off that water, giving us a read of approximately how rough that ocean is," said Maj. Kyle Larson, 53rd WRS aerial reconnaissance weather officer. The hunters have been using the remote "smerf" sensors for only about five years.
"Instead of dropping sondes all the way ... into the eye of the storm, this is constantly updating," Roundtree said, referring to the SFMR.
Both are equally accurate, Larson added. The nonrecoverable, biodegradable dropsondes use GPS. A satellite uplink on the plane transmits the data — every 10 minutes — to National Hurricane Center in Miami. The Air Force weather units are secondary to receive that data "for archival purposes," Larson said.
Real-time data the Hurricane Hunters collect from inside hurricanes is often used in the models to forecast where hurricanes will go.
"The level of interest, from depression, to tropical storm, to hurricane from [Category] 1 to Cat 5, we'll fly all courses of the storm," Roundtree said.
The C-130s are tools themselves. Affectionately called the "stubbys," the J-models delivered to the hunters in 1999 are about 15 feet shorter than the C-130Js rolling off the production line.
Roundtree, who transitioned over to the hunters a year ago from AC-130 gunships says the ironically quieter stubbys make his mission just as exciting as protecting ground troops.
"Once you get into the storm environment, there's still a lot of things you've got to worry about," he said.
"The safety of the crew, the safety of the aircraft. You've got to make sure you make it through the eye and back in one piece, and it's kind of the same thing in combat," Roundtree said.
Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East, Europe and Pacific for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.