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Editor's Note: The information on this page was obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory.

Hurricane Reconnaissance

History | Research Aircraft
Weather Reconnaissance -- A Perspective

Aerial weather reconnaissance is vitally important to the forecasters of the National Hurricane Center. Reconnaissance aircraft penetrate to the core of the storm and provide detailed measurements of its wind field, as well as an accurate location of the center: information that is usually not available from any other source. The information helps the meteorologist determine what is going on inside the storm as it actually happens. Aircraft data are a vital part of the information the hurricane specialists use in their forecasts of speed, intensity, and direction of movement of the storm.

The Air Force flies WC-130 on hurricane reconnaissance missions. (Photo Courtesy 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron)
The National Hurricane Center is supported by specially modified and equipped aircraft of the U.S. Air Force Reserve (AFRES) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Aircraft Operations Center (NOAA/AOC). AFRES' 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, known as the "Hurricane Hunters" is based at Keesler Air Force Base near Biloxi, Mississippi. The unit flies the Lockheed WC-130 "Hercules," a four-engine turboprop aircraft which carries a crew of six people and can stay aloft for up to fourteen hours. NOAA flies Lockheed WP-3 "Orions", another four engine turboprop which carries a crew consisting of from seven to seventeen persons and can stay aloft for up to twelve hours. The NOAA/AOC aircraft and crews which fly primarily research missions are based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. Both units can be deployed as needed in the Atlantic, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and the Central Pacific Ocean.

NOAA flies WP-3 on hurricane reconnaissance missions. The above photo is the P-3 variant of the Orion. (Photo Courtesy Lockheed Martin)
Meteorological information obtained from aerial reconnaissance include winds, pressure, temperature, dew point temperature and location of the storm center. A parachute borne weather sensor dropped from the plane measures the storm characteristics below the aircraft. Data from the storm environment is available almost instantly with observations taken as often as every 30 seconds. This information provides a detailed look at the structure of the storm and a clear indication of its intensity.

Flying into a hurricane is a unique experience. Weather crew members who have flown combat missions say that their feelings before both types of missions were similar. There is a blend of excitement and apprehension. Adding to the tension is the knowledge that no two hurricanes are alike. Some are gentle while others are like raging bulls. Preparations for flying into a hurricane must be thorough. All crew members are highly trained specialists. Loose objects are tied down or stowed away and crew members wear seat belts and safety harnesses. Once the meteorological equipment pinpoints the storm center, the crew determines the easiest way to get inside. In a well developed storm, this can be a difficult challenge. Winds at flight level often exceed 100 miles per hour and the wall cloud surrounding the center can be 10-15 miles thick. Rain often comes in torrents, and updrafts and down drafts are usually strong and frequent. Inside the eye, however, the conditions are much different; many times the ocean is visible and there is blue sky and sunshine above. The flight level winds are nearly calm. Often the eye and wall cloud presents a stadium effect, like standing in the center of a large football stadium.

Both the WC-130 "Hercules" and the WP-3 "Orion" operate most efficiently at altitudes of 24,000 to 30,000 feet. Since most storms occur some distance from the aircraft's home station the crew usually flies to the storm at high altitudes to conserve fuel. About 200 miles from the storm the aircraft descends to its storm operating level. If the storm is in its infancy such as a depression or tropical storm with winds less than 50 ,mph, the crew operates as close to the surface of the sea as possible--from 500 to 1500 feet. If the storm is more fully developed, either a hurricane or a strong tropical storm, the aircraft flies its pattern, including penetrations to the center, at 10,000 feet altitude. A typical mission will last from 10-12 hours during which time the crew will penetrate to the center of the storm anywhere from 3 to 6 times. When the mission is completed, the aircraft will climb back to high altitude for the trip home.

Aerial weather reconnaissance into one of nature's most destructive forces is not without risk. In September 1955, a Navy P2V and its crew of nine plus two Canadian newsmen were lost in the Caribbean Sea while flying in Hurricane Janet. Three Air Force aircraft have been lost flying in typhoons in the Pacific.

The job of coordinating the reconnaissance effort rests with a small group of Air Force civilians assigned to the Hurricane Center. This unit, under the Chief, Aerial Reconnaissance Coordination, All Hurricanes (known by the acronym CARCAH) is responsible for determining requirements and arranging for supporting flights. Data relayed back to the Center by satellite downlink is checked for accuracy by CARCAH and then transmitted to the world-wide meteorological community through both military and civilian communications circuits.

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Research Aircraft
53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron Hurricane Hunters
The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron located at Keesler Air Force Base near Biloxi, Mississippi is a one-of-a-kind organization--it is the only unit in the world flying weather reconnaissance on a routine basis. The mission of the Hurricane Hunters is to recruit, organize and train assigned personnel to perform aerial surveillance of tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Central Pacific. The unit also flies winter storm missions off both coasts of the United States.

WC-130 "Hercules" Specs
Cost:$22 Million
Wind Span:132'7"
Engines:Allison T-56-A15 Turboprop
Mission time:14 hours, depending on speed, weight, altitude
Max altitude:35,000 feet
Max Speed:320 kts
Passengers:25 max

The 53rd WARS is authorized 20 aircrews. Each aircrew is made up of six personnel: two pilots, a flight engineer, navigator, weather officer and dropsonde operator.

To perform their mission, the Hurricane Hunters have ten WC-130 aircraft. These are C-130 Hercules which are specially-configured with computerized meteorological data-gathering instruments.

The unit was activated on January 1, 1976, as the 815th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, Air Force Reserve, at Keesler AFB. Known as the Storm Trackers, the unit's first hurricane mission was June 9,1976, when it flew two penetrations into Hurricane Annette off Western Mexico in the Eastern Pacific. In 1991, it became the last Air Force organization flying weather missions. The unit was renamed the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron "Hurricane Hunters" on November 1, 1993, in honor of the active duty organization of the same name that had flown the Atlantic hurricane mission since the 1950's. The 53rd WARS continues a proud weather reconnaissance tradition of service to the country which began in 1944 after Admiral Halsey's fleet experienced two disastrous encounters with typhoons in the Western Pacific.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maintains two "flying laboratories" to support its oceanographic and atmospheric research activities. The WP-3D Orions are heavily instrumented and powered by four turbo-prop engines. They have been in NOAA's service since 1975.

WP-3 "Orion" Aircraft Specs
Wind Span:99'7''
True air Speed:325 kts
Engines:Allison T-56-A14 Turboprop
Mission time:8.5 Hours @ low altitude; 11.1 Hours at high altitude

On the average, each research aircraft logs about 400 hours a year, aiding scientists in better understanding hurricanes, studying the ocean currents, and investigating the structures of severe storms. The aircraft are also used for testing new instrumentation and participating in a variety of other scientific endeavors.

During the hurricane season, the WP-3s help support the National Hurricane center (NHC) in monitoring and forecasting tropical storms and hurricanes. The aircraft penetrate these dangerous storms to collect and transmit meteorological data critical to the forecasts and warning issued by NHC forecasters.

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Weather Reconnaissance -- A Perspective
On 27 July 1943, Major Joe Duckworth flew a propeller-driven, single-engine North American AT-6 Texan trainer into the eye of a tropical storm near Galveston, Texas. Major Duckworth flew into the eye of the storm twice that day, once with a navigator and again with a weather officer, in what are generally considered to be the first airborne attempts to obtain storm 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.

By the late 1950's, over 100 aircraft were configured for a variety of weather missions. As weather satellites were developed and refined during the 1960's, they eventually replaced aircraft for general reconnaissance duty because of their large viewing area. While tropical cyclones can also be easily observed by satellites, detailed information on their position and strength can only be measured by an aircraft. As a result, what has developed over the years is known as the United States Air Force Tropical Cyclone Reconnaissance Mission. Today that mission is proudly carried on by the Air Force Reserve.

The workhorse of the Air Force weather reconnaissance fleet has been and continues to be the Lockheed WC-130 Hercules. The aircraft in current use is the WC-130 which was adapted for the weather reconnaissance role from earlier transport and rescue versions. The aircraft is straight off the production line and receives no further strengthening to fly the hurricane mission.

WC-130's carry a basic crew of six: pilot, co-pilot, flight

engineer, navigator, aerial reconnaissance weather officer (ARWO),and dropsonde operator. The pilot who is the aircraft commander and the co-pilot fly the plane. The navigator keeps track of the aircraft's position and movement. The flight engineer monitors the mechanical functioning of the aircraft. The ARWO observes and records meteorological data at flight level. The dropsonde operator collects and records vertical meteorological data from flight level to the surface of the ocean using a parachute borne instrument called the dropsonde.

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