53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (53rd WRS)
The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, a component of the 403rd Wing located at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, MS, is a one-of-a-kind organization. It is the only unit in the world flying hurricanes on a routine basis.
The 53rd WRS, known as the Hurricane Hunters, has sole responsibility for the reconnaissance mission in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and Eastern and Central Pacific Ocean areas.
Co-located with the National Hurricane Center in Miami, FL, is a small group of Air Force Reserve civilian personnel, assigned to the 53rd WRS. The supervisory meteorologist of the unit serves as Chief, Aerial Reconnaissance Coordination, All Hurricanes, better known as CARCAH. These personnel are responsible for coordinating Department of Commerce requirements for hurricane data, tasking weather reconnaissance missions, and monitoring all data transmitted from weather reconnaissance aircraft.
The 53rd WRS trace its origins to the year 1944, when, as a barroom dare, two Army Air Corps pilots challenged each other to fly through a tropical storm. On July 27, 1943, Maj. Joe Duckworth flew a propeller-driven, single-engine North American AT-6 "Texan" trainer into the eye of a tropical storm. Duckworth flew into the eye of that storm twice that day, once with a navigator and again with a weather officer. These were generally considered to be the first airborne attempts to obtain data for use in plotting the position of a tropical cyclone as it approached land. Duckworth's pioneering efforts paved the way for further flights into tropical cyclones.
The 53rd WRS was originally activated in 1944, as the 30th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Gander, Newfoundland. Its original mission was to fly weather tracks between North America and Allied Western Europe. Since that time, the Hurricane Hunters have had many designations and called many airfields home.
From Gander, the squadron moved south to New Hampshire and then on to Florida. In late 1947, the Hurricane Hunters moved across the Atlantic to Kindley Field, Bermuda, later relocating at Burtonwood Royal Air Force Station, England, and Dharan, Saudi Arabia. The squadron returned to Bermuda for a short time, and then back to the United States at Hunter AFB, GA. In 1966, the 53rd WRS once again left the United States, this time for Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico. When Ramey closed in 1973, the Hurricane Hunters came to their present location at Keesler AFB, MS.
In June of 1991, the 53rd WRS was inactivated, and all weather reconnaissance responsibility fell to the Air Force Reserve's 815th Weather Squadron, which had existed concurrently with the 53rd since 1976. Then on November 1, 1993, the 53rd WRS was reactivated and assigned to the Air Force Reserve, replacing the 815th WS.
The mission of the Hurricane Hunters is to recruit, organize and train assigned personnel to perform aerial weather reconnaissance. During the hurricane season from June 1st to November 30th, they provide surveillance of tropical disturbances and hurricanes in the Atlantic (west of 55W), Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico for the National Hurricane Center in Miami, FL. They also may fly storms for the Central Pacific Hurricane Center in Honolulu, HI.
When conditions favorable for hurricane development are observed, either by surface observation or by weather satellite, the National Hurricane Center in Miami, FL, alerts the flying weather crews. Their job: to determine the precise location, motion, strength, and size of the storm, and transmit the information by satellite to the National Hurricane Center.
The first missions are often flown at low-level, between 500 and 1500 feet. These low-level investigative missions are flown to determine if the winds near the ocean surface are blowing in a complete, counter- clockwise circle, then to find the center of this closed circulation. This is the first stage of a developing tropical cyclone.
As the storm builds in strength, the WC-130s enter a storm at low-level, 5000, or 10,000 feet of altitude, choosing higher altitudes as the storm becomes more severe. The tops of the storm clouds may reach up to 40,000 or 50,000 feet, so the aircraft do not fly over the storm, but go right through the thick of the weather to collect the most valuable information. The Alpha Pattern flown through the storm looks like an "X". The crews fly at least 105 miles in each corner of the storm to map the extent of the damaging winds, and pass through the eye every two hours, continuing the pattern until the next aircraft is ready to take its place in the around-the-clock surveillance of the storm.
From November 1st through April 15th, the unit also flies winter storms off both coasts of the United States in support of the National Center for Environmental Prediction. These missions are flown at high altitude (30,000 feet), and can be just as challenging as the hurricane missions, with turbulence, lightning and icing.
The crews collect data ahead of weather systems before they move off the eastern seaboard, to help determine if the conditions are right for the storms to intensify and create the Nor'easter blizzards. In 1997 and 1998, the Hurricane Hunters also flew winter storms in the Gulf of Alaska before they struck the Pacific northwest. Research showed improvement in the forecast accuracy with these flights.
The aircraft are flown at 30,000 feet, and an array of dropwindsondes are released along the route. The predetermined tracks take six to eleven hours to complete. Typically, one to three missions are flown per major winter storm event.
Occasionally, the 53rd may fly participate in weather research projects in the national interest. The aircraft are capable of collecting research-quality data, every 10 seconds, and even down to 1-second intervals. In January and February of 1997, the 53rd joined scientists from several countries in the Fronts and Atlantic Storm Tracks Experiment (FASTEX) to study the intensification of winter storms as they cross the ocean.
The squadron also has the unique charter to release large drifting data buoys in the path of hurricanes. In 1996, the 53rd released a series of four buoys in Hurricane Fran. The buoys drifted for days, and gathered very valuable data in the storm environment, and even scored a direct hit when the eye of Fran overtook the buoy.
To perform their mission, the Hurricane Hunters have ten WC-130H aircraft. These 1965 model C-130 Hercules aircraft are adapted for the weather reconnaissance role from a search and rescue version HC-130. They are not specially reinforced, but are equipped with computerized meteorological data-gathering instruments. These aircraft are scheduled to be replaced by the new WC-130J over the next couple years.
The 53rd WRS is authorized 20 aircrews. Each crew is made up of six positions: two pilots, a flight engineer, navigator, weather officer and dropsonde operator. All are reservists, and half also hold full-time civil service positions as Air Reserve Technicians, available for immediate call to duty.
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