Hurricane Hunters: All in a day's work

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Sasha S. Skrine
  • 459th ARW Public Affairs Office

Thunderstorms poured through the nation's capital August 22 as Hurricane Bill moved up the coast. Those traveling around the Beltway may have noticed heavy traffic. Sports fans were braving the storms to travel to one of the three professional sporting events taking place in the city that evening. Scattered in the sea of headlights on I-495 was another group of enthusiasts who too, were not afraid to brave the storm. Instead, they chose to hunt it down. These individuals were bound for Andrews Air Force Base, where they would board a WC-130J aircraft and fly into the eye of Hurricane Bill. 

Weather Warrior 

For the past twelve years Jason Foster has been chasing storms. 

"I started out chasing tornado' s in the plains," said Foster, president of Weather Warrior Media, a company that provides storm footage to outlets like the Discovery and The Weather Channel. 

In 2003, Foster turned his attention to hurricanes. 

"As soon as I began chasing hurricanes, I heard about the Hurricane Hunters," explained Foster. "I decided I wanted to tell a story about the level of research that goes into forecasting hurricanes and providing the public with safety advisories. The Hurricane Hunters are a large part of that story, so when I got the call that I would be flying into Hurricane Bill, I thought, "Very cool!", Foster explained. "The Hurricane Hunters are like the Holy Grail". 

Hurricane Hunters 

The official name of the Hurricane Hunters is the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. The unit, founded in 1946, is an Air Force Reserve Unit based out of Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss. 

"Our mission is to gather temperatures, wind speed, storm pressure and to verify the storms position...all of which is data that helps the National Hurricane Center increase the predictability of storm paths," said Lt. Col. Jason May, commander of the Hurricane Hunters. 

Colonel May, a traditional reservist explained that the Hurricane Hunters have 20 crews. Half are full time reservists or Air Reserve Technicians, while the other half are traditional reservists, many of which, including Colonel May, are employed full-time in the private sector as commercial airline pilots. 

"At any given moment we are able to have 3-4 crews ready to go," explained Colonel May. 

Telling the story

"The assignment to fly Hurricane Bill came 24 hours prior to boarding the flight," said Staff Sgt. Tanya King, Public Affairs Specialist and NCOIC of the 403rd Wing. 

Sergeant King is one of two full-time public affairs staffers that work to share the mission of the Hurricane Hunters with the masses. 

"Because this mission is so unique," explained Sergeant King, "We have a media list of more than 150 outlets, all of which are waiting to take a flight with the Hurricane Hunters."

"When I got the call that I was flying Bill I was pretty surprised," said Foster in the parking lot of the passenger terminal as he unloaded his gear in preparation to board the aircraft. Foster's opportunity to fly Hurricane Bill boiled down to being in the right place at the right time, explained Sergeant King. 


On Saturday, August 22, Sergeant King was making phone calls to the four members of media who had been selected to fly Hurricane Bill. The flight was scheduled for Sunday morning and Sergeant King invited four media outlets from Georgia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. 

"Media who fly on Hurricane Hunter missions can wait anywhere from three months, like in the case of Jason Foster, or three years," explained Sergeant King. 

Sergeant King explained factors that come into play in the media selection process include the severity of the storm, location of the storm and the mobility of the reporter. 

On the afternoon of August 22, Hurricane Bill was downgraded to a category 2 storm, then later a category 1. 

"The storms been downgraded," Sergeant King explained to one of the reporters who had just begun a twelve hour drive from Atlanta to the Washington, D.C. area. "We're not flying tomorrow, we're flying tonight." 

"With the unpredictability of the storm, even though you are selected to fly, you may not get a chance," Sergeant King said in reference to the Atlanta reporter. "We're taking off in five hours, he won't make it here in time, but we will try our best to get him one of the next ones," King explained. 

All in a day's work 

The Hurricane Hunters basic crew consists of a team of five: a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight meteorologist and a weather reconnaissance loadmaster. 

Each crew member has a specific responsibility.  The pilot, who serves as the aircraft commander, and the co-pilot man the flight controls. The navigator keeps track of the aircraft's position and movement and monitors radar. 

The flight meteorologist acts as flight director and observes and records meteorological data at flight level using a computer that encodes weather data every 30 seconds. The weather reconnaissance loadmaster collects and records the meteorological data using a parachute-borne sensor called a dropsonde. It measures and encodes weather data down to the ocean surface which in turn is sent back to the National Hurricane Center. 

The Hurricane Bill flight was eleven hours long, and the crew flew through the storm four times. 

"The duration of the flight depends on where we fly the storm out of," said Colonel May, "but usually we fly anywhere from 9-11 hours." 

From June to November, residents of the Eastern Seaboard play the annual cat and mouse game with countless hurricanes and tropical storms.

"The National Hurricane Center has models of data they've collected over the years," said Colonel May. "The data we gather by flying into the storm helps to increase their model by up to 15 percent which helps create more accurate predictions of storms paths. More accurate predictions help bring peace of mind to those who reside in the path of the storm."