Storm Chasers: Take a Rare Look Inside Two ‘Hurricane Hunter’ Aircraft
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Almost 76 years ago, an Air Force pilot became the first pilot to intentionally fly an aircraft into a hurricane, and it was to win a bet. While that 1943 “mission” didn’t have an objective — besides winning a beer — Air Force pilots have since regularly performed flights into hurricanes as a critical part of tracking, understanding and predicting storms.
Back in May, “hurricane hunter” pilots embarked on a mini tour of the East Coast, letting the general public tour two of the aircraft that regularly fly into hurricanes.
Now, as Hurricane Dorian churns toward the east coast of Florida, we thought now would be a good time to revisit what we learned about these aircraft and the critical missions they perform.
There are two different groups of hurricane hunters, one military and one civilian. The Air Force is primarily responsible for reconnaissance missions, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) flies research missions into cyclones to learn more about the storms. Both serve different but crucial parts of the mission to understand hurricanes and develop accurate forecasts.
I grew up in Tampa, Florida, in a house located just a block from the waters of Tampa Bay. Each hurricane season, we depended on the crews that regularly risk their lives to fly missions into hurricanes to get accurate forecasts. So, there was no way that I was going to miss this opportunity talk with — and thank — the crew that operate missions using these aircraft.
Let’s take a look inside each aircraft and learn more about their mission.
Air Force Reconnaissance
The Air Force’s hurricane hunters are officially part of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron based in Keesler Air Force Base near Biloxi, Mississippi. While some hurricane reconnaissance missions may be conducted from Keesler AFB, this squadron regularly deploys all over the Western Hemisphere in order to scout hurricanes.
The squadron operates a fleet of 10 Lockheed WC-130 aircraft. It’s a C-130 Hercules transport with a few modifications to allow crews to perform their weather-specific mission. (Weather missions is what the W stands for in the US military-aircraft nomenclature; the C indicates a cargo aircraft.) One of those ten aircraft was part of the tour, sporting a proud “Hurricane Hunters” on the tail — the squadron’s nickname.
One of the weather-specific modifications can be seen if you look closely enough at the belly of the aircraft. A small dropsonde — an “expendable weather-reconnaissance device” — delivery tube extends out a few feet from the aircraft.
The Air Force crew inside uses that tube to drop sensors into the storm to measure its pressure, temperature, humidity and wind speed through GPS tracks.
A five-person crew operates each reconnaissance flight, two more than operate a typical C-130. In addition to a pilot, co-pilot and loadmaster that make up a standard C-130 crew, the WC-130 operates with a navigator (officially a “combat systems officer”) and an aerial reconnaissance weather officer.
The navigator is stationed in the cockpit with the pilots while the weather officer sits facing backward on the port side of the aircraft, at a permanently-installed weather collection station.
There’s space for many others to ride along, although only the five-person crew is needed for the mission. There’s a lot of legroom, but the seats aren’t exactly designed for comfort. And it can be quite a long ride.
This squadron doesn’t make the decision on when to fly into a storm. As the crew dryly explained, the storm “needs to be interesting enough” to deploy assets to study it. When that decision has been made by the National Hurricane Service, part of the squadron’s 20 flight crew members will deploy to a strategically-located base.
Typically three aircraft and approximately 70 personnel in total will make the journey for Atlantic storms. However, Hawaii storms can take more resources, so the squadron will usually send a fourth aircraft, sometimes just to haul the personnel and equipment necessary for the deployment. Conveniently, the C-130 is designed as a cargo aircraft, complete with a cargo ramp.
The squadron is contracted by the National Hurricane Service to fly from up to three locations with at least three aircraft at each location. So, the squad’s maintenance crew needs to make sure that all 10 aircraft in the fleet are kept “battle ready.” That’s a daunting task.
The digital “glass cockpit” is thoroughly modern, as are the engines and other systems, but the C-130 was designed in the 1950. The C-130J is the most recent version of the legendarily rugged aircraft.
The crew explained that they only perform missions on storms over open water. Once the storm moves ashore, ground-based weather stations are able to adequately measure its strength and direction.
Missions usually range from eight to 12 hours, with three or four hours of that spent flying through the storm itself. During this time, crew will deploy dropsondes at critical parts of the storm, while continuously measuring the storm’s strength at flight level via weather instruments attached to the outside of the aircraft.
12 hours is a long time to spend on an aircraft, and a kid at the briefing held for the public asked the obvious question: Where does the crew go to the bathroom? There is one on board, and as a crew member noted, it has “everything you want in a bathroom, except for the walls.” There’s just a curtain that can be extended around the toilet seat and stows away nicely for public presentations.
Compared to the Air Force’s fleet of 10 aircraft, NOAA has just two. Both are Lockheed WP-3D Orions, a heavily-modified variant of the P-3 Orion maritime-patrol aircraft the Navy has used for decades to patrol the seas, hunt for submarines and listen to other countries’ communications.
Each aircraft is powered by four Allison T56-14 turboprops, which are powerful enough that the aircraft can safely fly with just two operational.
With signoff from Jim Henson Productions, one is nicknamed Kermit the Frog (registration N42RF) and the other is nicknamed Miss Piggy (registration N43RF). Kermit was the aircraft on display for us.
Each aircraft has its respective mascot hanging from the instrument panel in the cockpit. The crew insisted that these stay up during missions and help act as a “turbulence indicator.”
Both NOAA aircraft are fitted with 21 seats; at least 18 are filled for a typical research flight. A seat diagram with positions was posted on the wall in the aircraft for reference.
Just behind the cockpit on the port side of the aircraft is the flight director’s station. This is where the chief meteorologist directs the flight, balancing the mission’s objectives with keeping the aircraft and crew safe.
Like on the WC-130, the NOAA aircraft have a dropsonde delivery tube installed to take external measurements.
In addition to standard wind-speed measurement tools, the NOAA aircraft have advanced tools mounted on the wing for measuring all different aspects of the storms they pass through.
Unlike the WC-130, NOAA’s WP-3D Orion is much more geared to onboard research. This means that there are plenty of research stations throughout the aircraft.
A lot of computing power is needed on board. There are some serious server racks installed on the plane.
Of course, everything needs to be fully bolted down for when the turbulence starts, including the onboard printer.
With all of the onboard and external electronics, there’s quite a large circuit breaker panel installed.
Like the WC-130s, these aircraft fly right through the hurricane to study it. And it seems that the NOAA crews have faced some extraordinarily harrowing experiences — such as losing three of four engines to fires in a matter of minutes. In each circumstance, the crew has pulled off miraculous feats to save the aircraft, sometimes only a few hundred feet from the ocean. There are multiple incidents that the crew recalled where multiple members retired from flying into hurricanes once back on terra firma.
Understandably, safety is paramount onboard. Each station includes detailed instructions for what to do in the case of ditching or an onboard fire.
The primary ditching escape is an overwing exit hatch, which the crew opened during our tour to cool off the interior of the aircraft.
On the outside of the plane, there are logos for each of the hurricanes that Kermit has flown into; 110, including many Category 5 storms and infamous ones like the 1992 Hurricane Andrew that devastated Miami (Kermit, however, did not fly into Katrina.)
Keen eyes may notice that two of the hurricane logos are different from the others. They refer to Southern Hemisphere storms the airplane studied in 1979, which spin in the opposite direction from those that originate north of the equator. Thanks to new wings fitted recently, Kermit — which has been in service since 1976 — can keep flying for another 15 to 20 years.
While flying into a Category 5 hurricane may sound incredibly dangerous, both the Air Force and NOAA crews insisted that the strongest hurricanes aren’t necessarily the worst to fly through. After all, commercial airliners fly through jet streams faster than many hurricanes with maybe just some light chop.
Instead, the hurricane hunters are wary of storms that are rapidly intensifying, falling apart or have ingested dry air. It’s these storms that can cause the most issues for the aircraft flying through them. Both the Air Force and NOAA crews recalled times when the aircraft would drop more than 6,000 feet due to a strong downdraft. When you’re flying at 40,000 feet, that’s going to feel like a wild drop but there’s still plenty of time to recover. However, the hurricane hunters typically only fly around 10,000 feet, making such a drop much more dangerous.
If you missed your chance to tour these aircraft this year, hopefully the Air Force and NOAA will team up again next year to tour these aircraft for another Hurricane Awareness Week. Make sure to follow the National Hurricane Center, the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron and the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center for more about these hurricane flight operations and upcoming displays.
All photos by the author.
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