It wasn’t the storm, but rather their final destination that made the flight so unusual. Instead of heading back to Keesler, the plane landed at a base in San Antonio, Texas. For the fourth time that season the Hurricane Hunters had to evacuate their home base because of the threat of a hurricane there, which is believed to be the highest number of base evacuations in the squadron’s history.
“We’ve never been at this level of activity, to repeatedly hurrevac this frequently,” Withee, a navigator who is also in charge of planning the evacuations, said in an interview.
Amid a tumultuous year involving a pandemic, wildfires and heat waves, 2020 brought the most active Atlantic hurricane season since record-keeping began. There were so many tropical storms and hurricanes, the World Meteorological Organization ran out of names and had to resort to letters from the Greek Alphabet for just the second time.
The 53rd was pushed to the limits of its operational parameters. In late August, hunters flew missions in three simultaneous hurricanes, the most they are allowed to perform at one time, according to Lt. Col Marnee Losurdo, a spokesperson for the 403rd Air Wing, which commands the squadron.
The 53rd flew 146 missions for a total of 1,364 flight hours, making 2020 the third-busiest season in squadron history. The second-busiest was 2005. The busiest season on record was 1969, before there was extensive satellite coverage and forecasters relied on planes for almost all of their tropical cyclone information.
Even now, in the era of sophisticated computer modeling and satellite monitoring, the Hurricane Hunters are in demand because in-situ data is impossible to get any other way. A storm might appear to be a Category 5 monster on satellite imagery, but only the planes can verify that in order for coastal residents to be fully prepared.
Dauntingly active hurricane seasons may be a permanent part of the squadron’s future. Recent seasons have been more active due in part to the warm phase of an oceanic and atmospheric phenomenon called the Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation, which can last for decades. Climate change is another driver, as well.
Warming sea surface temperatures create the conditions for hurricanes to develop and strengthen, allowing the storm season to lengthen, and storms to form in unusual places. While climate models initially predicted climate change would result in stronger, but less frequent hurricanes, some newer models indicate their frequency may increase as well.
At the same time, hurricanes are already taking advantage of warmer waters by putting on more frightening displays of rapid intensification.
Whether the future holds only stronger storms, or both more frequent and stronger storms, the role of weather reconnaissance planes to collect data used in forecasts will be increasingly important.
But the 53rd 's fleet of planes is growing older, and that could pose challenges.
Currently the squadron is comprised of ten WC-130Js, a C-130 Hercules cargo plane modified with weather sensing equipment. The aircraft in this fleet are at the latter half of their service lives — three are 19-years-old; four are 20-years-old; and three are 22-years-old, according to a public records request.
At that age, the fleet is “closer to the end of their service life than to the beginning,” said John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, a military information website, who previously wrote an analysis of the C-130 for the Federation of American Scientists. “Calculating when to replace them is what fleet managers have to start thinking about.”
Service life is unique to each plane, and depends on the number of hours flown and the stress of each mission, Pike noted. As the end of service life approaches, modifications are commonly made to extend it as a cost-saving move. “They keep getting closer to life expectancy, but never quite get to it,” Pike said. The planes can last for decades like this.
There are currently no plans for replacing them, Lt. Col. Losurdo said in an email, adding that the planes aren’t considered old compared to the wider Air Force C-130 fleet.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operates an even older fleet of hurricane research aircraft, and this agency faces a much more urgent challenge. This was the busiest season on record for NOAA’s three planes, with 86 flights and 678 hours flown.
The two main hunters it uses to fly inside a hurricane, WP-3D Orions nicknamed “Kermit” and “Miss Piggy,” were built in 1975 and 1977. The agency has modified both, including “rewinging” them, to keep them in service through 2030. Meanwhile, a plan drawn up in 2019 “lays out recapitalization options and timelines to sustain NOAA’s aircraft fleet,” agency spokesman Jonathan Shannon wrote in an email.
“We have started analyzing the alternatives for potential platforms to replace the WP-3D Orions.” NOAA may choose to switch to C-130s, though no decision has been made on new aircraft.
The agency also operates a smaller Gulfstream IV SP jet, which was built in 1994 and is used to fly around or over a hurricane. A second Gulfstream G550 was commissioned in 2019 for $41 million, along with a twin-engine turboprop Beechcraft for $12 million. Neither are used to penetrate a hurricane’s eyewall, where the most intense winds and heaviest rains are located, along with the worst turbulence.
The two agencies fly similar but slightly different missions that together are crucial to helping people survive hurricanes. The Air Force Hurricane Hunters penetrate tropical storms and hurricanes at about 10,000 feet to drop weather gathering instruments called dropsondes, which relay information in real time to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Among other things, the dropsondes record barometric pressure, temperature, wind speed, and moisture content.
The Hurricane Center uses this information to forecast the ongoing storm and help communities prepare for what may come their way.
NOAA’s planes also deploy dropsondes to help NHC with forecasts. In addition, the WP-3′s carry tail Doppler radar that can scan the storm vertically and horizontally to give researchers a three-dimensional view of the storm. They also drop bathythermographs to measure the temperature of the water underneath and out ahead of a storm.
This information helps scientists craft long-term models of hurricane behavior, crucial to understanding hurricane trends and to refine the projected track and intensity of future storms. These flights are crucial to better understanding and anticipating rapid intensification, during which a storm’s wind speeds increase more than 35 mph in a 24-hour span.
If rapid intensification happens right before landfall, it can be extremely dangerous. Three 2020 hurricanes rapidly intensified before raging ashore, as did 2018′s Category 5 storm, Hurricane Michael. Predicting this phenomenon well in advance has so far eluded researchers.
During their flights inside a storm, hurricane hunters are hammered by cross winds. They can hit updrafts and downdrafts that plunge the planes hundreds of feet in seconds. Sometimes they are hit by lightning.
The planes are routinely lashed so hard by rain that paint is stripped off, exposing metal to corrosive saltwater, and must be patched right away. “We fly 'em, they paint 'em,” Lt. Col. Withee said about the constant attention the planes get.
The sun was coming over the horizon as Lt. Col. Withee's C-130 arrived at Zeta that October day. The storm had just come off the Yucatan Peninsula. “At that point the storm was pretty messy,” he said, with disorganized bands and a misshapen eye. “They're always messy coming off land.”
The plane carved its path through 70 mph winds and torrential rains.
Then, when the plane landed in San Antonio eight or nine hours later, technicians pored over the aircraft looking for any damage to repair in the relentless effort to keep the planes aloft.
Tristram Korten is a journalist based in Miami and author of “Into the Storm,” about Hurricane Joaquin and the sinking of El Faro in 2015. Follow him @TristramKorten.