Getting data from inside a hurricane is critical. The measurements are a significant component of the track and intensity forecasts, and thus can be the difference between life and death for residents in the danger zone. The men and women known as Hurricane Hunters take it to the limit each season to get the crucial data.
Joseph Duckworth, an ace pilot in the U.S. Air Force, became the first person to safely fly through a hurricane in 1943, but he only did it on a bet. By 1946, though, the idea of flying through hurricanes was official and Hurricane Hunter flights began to be regular. Before satellites, pilots would fly out over the ocean patrolling for storms. Once they knew one had formed, they would fly through it to get an idea of how strong it was.
These days, Hurricane Hunters include members of the military flying with the Air Force Reserve 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron as well as a civilian team with the National Hurricane Center. The teams have somewhat different missions, but they both gather observations that help identify strength as well as improve numerical weather modeling.
First Lt. Garrett Black is a meteorologist and an Aerial Reconnaissance Weather Officer with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. He’s flown through 60 hurricanes and has 600 flight hours under his belt. We asked him what it’s like to fly into some of the most dangerous weather phenomena on the planet, and how he ended up in such an interesting position.
What is it like to punch through the eye wall of a hurricane in a plane?
Every storm is completely different. As you can imagine, the eye wall is usually pretty bumpy in a well-developed hurricane. I flew Hurricane Maria when it was a Category 5 at night, and it was completely clear in the eye with a full moon above us. That was one of the more surreal moments.
What's the biggest storm you've flown through?
Last year I flew Hurricane Harvey, Maria and Irma. All three of those will always stand out because of the obvious impacts they ended up having. The two individual flights that stand out the most for me were Hurricane Maria’s landfall mission on Puerto Rico and flying the initial invest on what became Hurricane Harvey way out in the Atlantic Ocean. For the Hurricane Maria landfall flight, we were in the eye as it was making landfall and could see the effects on the coast. It was a very humbling experience to actually see the impacts of the storm on land.
What are Hurricane Hunters measuring in storms? What happens with the data collected?
We are collecting temperature, dew point, wind speed and direction, pressure, and wind speeds at the surface. The aircraft data is being packaged into 10-minute averages that go out as high-density observations, which is what allows the world to follow us live. We also use dropsondes to sample the atmosphere in the same ways weather balloons are used over land. As the data is collected, the ARWO quality-checks all the data, then sends it to the National Hurricane Center, which uses the information for their forecasts. The data is then sent out worldwide.
Is your focus also on the tropics when you're not in the plane? What do you do when there's no storm?
When we aren’t flying tropical cyclones, we do various other missions for the Department of Defense as well as other scientific missions. We will fly winter storm synoptic missions over the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic in advance of developing nor’easters to improve the models. This past year we have also flown Atmospheric River projects in the Pacific Ocean for both operational and research purposes, and we sampled monsoons in the Bay of Bengal.
How does someone become a Hurricane Hunter? Was your career path typical?
To be a Hurricane Hunter, you must be in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. (The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron is an AF Reserve unit in the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss.) In order to be an Aerial Reconnaissance Weather Officer (ARWO), you must have a degree in meteorology and be a commissioned officer in the Air Force. As far as training goes, weather officers are required to go through combat and water survival school, initial weather officer course, and finally an in-house schooling at Keesler AFB that usually lasts around 16 months to gain our wings to be able to fly.