The Hurricane Hunters are aircrews that fly into tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic Ocean and Northeastern Pacific Ocean to gather weather data. Currently, the U.S. units that fly these missions are the United States Air Force Reserve's 53d Weather Reconnaissance Squadron and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hurricane Hunters; such missions have also been flown by Navy units and other Air Force and NOAA units.
One U.S. aircrew has been lost in duty since such missions began in 1943. Six of the seven crew members of the Navy PB4Y-2 (BuNo 59415) were killed on October 1, 1945 when their plane went down in a Category 1 typhoon over the South China Sea.
Before satellites were used to find storms, military aircraft flew routine weather reconnaissance tracks to detect formation of tropical cyclones. Today, satellites have revolutionized weather forecasters' ability to detect signs of such cyclones before they form, yet they cannot determine the interior barometric pressure of a hurricane nor provide accurate wind speed information — data needed to accurately predict hurricane development and movement.
USAFR 53d WRS
The Air Force Reserve 53d Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, the world's only operational military weather reconnaissance unit, is based at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi; most weather recon flights go from there. The term "hurricane hunters" was first applied to its missions in 1946.
The USAFR Hurricane Hunters fly weather missions in an area midway through the Atlantic Ocean to the Hawaiian Islands, and have on occasion flown into typhoons in the Pacific Ocean and gathered data in winter storms.
The 53d WRS Hurricane Hunters operate ten Lockheed WC-130J aircraft, which fly directly into the hurricane, typically penetrating the hurricane's eye several times per mission at altitudes between 500 feet (150 m) and 10,000 feet (3,000 m).
NOAA Hurricane Hunters
The civilian and NOAA Corps crew members of the NOAA Hurricane Hunters, based at the Aircraft Operations Center at MacDill AFB, in Tampa, Florida, mainly perform surveillance, research, and reconnaissance with highly instrumented aircraft including airborne Doppler weather radar measurements in both Atlantic and Pacific storms. They fly two Lockheed WP-3D Orion aircraft, heavily instrumented flying laboratories modified to take atmospheric and radar measurements within tropical cyclones and winter storms, and a G-IV Gulfstream high-altitude jet above 41,000 feet (12 km) to document upper- and lower-level winds that affect cyclone movement. The computer models that forecast hurricane tracks and intensity mainly use G-IV dropwindsonde data collected day and night in storms affecting the United States.
Among the types of aircraft that have been used to investigate hurricanes, are an instrumented Lockheed U-2 flown in Hurricane Ginny during the 1963 Atlantic hurricane season. Other types include the A-20 Havoc, 1944; B-24, 1944–1945; B-17, 1945–1947; B-25, 1946–1947; B-29, 1946–1947. WB-29, 1951–1956; WB-50, 1956–1963; WB-47, 1963–1969; WC-121N 1954-1973; WC-130A,B,E,H, 1965-2012.
The idea of aircraft reconnaissance of hurricane storm trackers was put forth by Captain W. L. Farnsworth of the Galveston Commercial Association in the early 1930s. Supported by the United States Weather Bureau, the "storm patrol bill" passed both the United States Senate and United States House of Representatives on June 15, 1936.
1943 Surprise Hurricane
That summer, British pilots were being trained in instrument flying at Bryan Field. When they saw that the Americans were evacuating their AT-6 Texan trainers in the face of the storm, they began questioning the construction of the aircraft. Lead instructor Colonel Joe Duckworth took one of the trainers out and flew it straight into the eye of the storm. After he returned safely with navigator Lt. Ralph O'Hair, the base's weather officer, Lt. William Jones-Burdick, took over the navigator's seat and Duckworth flew into the storm a second time.
This flight showed that hurricane reconnaissance flights were possible, and further flights continued occasionally. In 1946, the moniker "Hurricane Hunters" was first used, and the Air Force and now Air Force Reserve have used it ever since.
The United States Navy's VW-4 / WEARECORON FOUR Weather Reconnaissance Squadron Four, "Hurricane Hunters" was the seventh U.S. Navy squadron dedicated to weather reconnaissance. They flew several types of aircraft, but the WC-121N "Willy Victor" was the aircraft most often associated with flying into the "eye of the storm." The squadron operated WC-121s between late 1954 and 1972. VW-4 lost one aircraft and crew in a penetration of Hurricane Janet, and another to severe damage in a storm, but the severely damaged Willy Victor (MH-1) brought her crew home, though it never flew again. During 1973-1975, VW-4 operated the turbine-propeller Lockheed WP-3A Orion.
In 1974, a newly converted WC-130 (serial number 65-0965) was transferred to the 54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, the "Typhoon Chasers", at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. The aircraft was sent to investigate Typhoon Bess. The crew departed Clark Air Base in the Philippines with the callsign "Swan 38".
Radio contact with the aircraft was lost on 12 October 1974, apparently as the aircraft was heading into the typhoon's eye to make a second position fix. There were no radio transmissions indicating an emergency on board, and search teams could not locate the aircraft or its crew. All six crew members were listed as killed in action.
Swan 38 was the only WC-130 lost in a storm.
The landfall of Hurricane Katrina on 29 August 2005 devastated Keesler Air Force Base, home of the 53d WRS. The equipment and personnel of the squadron were flying out of Dobbins Air Reserve Base near Atlanta. Despite heavy losses, the squadron never missed a mission from the National Hurricane Center. The 53d has since returned to Keesler.
TV series (2012)
- Marson, Peter J., The Lockheed Constellation Series, 1982, Air-Britain (Historians) Ltd, Tonbridge, Kent, ISBN 0-85130-100-2.
- "HURRICANE HUNTERS: Nine 'brave' aircraft that need all nine lives". Flightglobal.com. Archived from the original on 4 October 2015. Retrieved 4 October 2015.
- Masters, Jeffrey. "Hunting Hugo". Wunderground. Retrieved October 28, 2012.
- Associated Press. STORM PATROL BILL PASSED TO PRESIDENT. Retrieved on 2008-06-06.
- Marson, 1982, p. 318
- Harlin Garland (October 1966). "U. S. Navy Hurricane Hunters". ESSA World. Environmental Satellite Services Administration: 7.
- Tom Robison. Whiskey-Charlie! Retrieved on 2008-09-26.
- The NOAA Hurricane Hunters Flight Science Homepage
- Hunting Hurricane Hugo Flight of NOAA42
- Navy Hurricane Hunters homepage
- 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron homepage
- 403rd Wing Homepage
- Air Weather Reconnaissance Association homepage
- ASN Accident description 13 OCT 1974 Lockheed WC-130H Hercules 65-0965
- NHC Reconnaissance data archive
- The NOAA Aircraft Operations Center homepage
- VW-1 All Hands Alumni Association homepage
- Whiskey Charlie
- Why and how people fly into hurricanes - USA Today - sidebar, "Fatal flights"