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Her-icane Hunters: Pair of female fliers living their dream tracking deadly storms

Maj. Devon Meister, pilot, and Maj. Ashley Lundry, aerial reconnaissance weather officer, are members of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, referred to as the Hurricane Hunters, which is a unit in the Air Force Reserve's 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Heather Heiney)

Maj. Devon Meister, pilot, and Maj. Ashley Lundry, aerial reconnaissance weather officer, are members of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, referred to as the Hurricane Hunters, which is a unit in the Air Force Reserve's 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Heather Heiney)

While some little girls dream of growing up and becoming a princess, others dream about becoming a Hurricane Hunter and flying into the most powerful storms on Earth.

At least that was the case for Maj. Ashley Lundry, an aerial reconnaissance weather officer, and Maj. Devon Meister, a pilot, both members of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, a unit of the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi.

The 53rd WRS is the only Department of Defense unit that flies weather reconnaissance missions into severe tropical weather to gather data for the National Hurricane Center to improve forecasts and storm warnings.

“It was my dream to fly through hurricanes since I was a little girl,” Lundry said. Her father, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and Navy pilot, influenced her career choice. “I always thought weather was really cool, and my dad told me there were pilots who flew planes through hurricanes. He planted the idea that I could do it.”

And she did. … But she served a stint in the Army and Air National Guard first.

Lundry received an Army ROTC scholarship to attend the Florida Institute of Technology and earned a degree in meteorology and her commission in 2006. She got her master’s degree in physical science at Emporia State University in Kansas in 2013.

After serving four years as an Army logistics officer, she transferred to the Oklahoma Air National Guard in 2010 to serve as a weather officer. She attended the Weather Officer Course at Keesler in 2010 and toured the 53rd WRS. That gave her the opportunity to inquire about future opportunities to serve in the squadron.

She transferred to the 53rd in 2014 and began her training to become a qualified ARWO.

While Meister said she didn’t always dream of becoming a hurricane hunter, she always loved mathematics and wanted to pursue a math-related career.

“I really liked math,” said Meister, who earned her undergraduate degree from the University of South Florida in 2003. “The good thing about a mathematics degree is that it opens a lot of doors for you in the military. At the time I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in the Air Force, but they needed weather officers. They sent me to get a second bachelor’s degree in meteorology at the U.S. Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, California, and I became a weather officer.”

Meister also attended the Weather Officer Course at Keesler in 2004 and visited the Hurricane Hunters to learn about their mission.
“Ever since I went on that tour I wanted to be a part of the Hurricane Hunters,” she said.

Meister was given the opportunity to become a pilot and took it. While in pilot training, she found that her unit was losing its mission and had to find a job. She called the 53rd WRS and was told the unit had a pilot board the following month. She met that board and signed on as a Hurricane Hunter in November 2011.

Today, Meister is one of two female pilots in the squadron, one of 243 female pilots in the Air Force Reserve and one of 728 in the entire Air Force.

Lundry is one of four female ARWOs in the squadron, the Reserve and the Air Force, since the 53rd WRS is the only unit that has this job.
It’s a unique mission, and with that mission comes unique challenges.
As a pilot, Meister and her counterparts fly directly into storms that most pilots avoid.

“The biggest difference between being a pilot for the Hurricane Hunters versus another unit is we purposely fly into severe weather rather than avoid it, and there is no training for that,” she said.

In fact, the majority of the squadron’s training for pilots, navigators, ARWOs and loadmasters is conducted at home station during operational missions. There is no formal schoolhouse.

“We are a student for multiple missions into a hurricane so we can experience the environment,” said Meister, who added it took her about two years of pilot training, C-130J-specific qualification and on-the-job training to become proficient to fly through storms.

Meister, who has now flown into 52 storms and has more than 1,500 flight hours, said her role as a pilot is to fly the weather officer into the storm.

As it is with pilots, Lundry said most ARWO training is done in-house as well.

“We need actual storms to fly for training, so the hurricane season impacts how soon you can become fully qualified,” she said, explaining that it took about a year of flying through 10 storms with 94 storm flight hours before she became fully qualified.

The squadron conducts two types of missions – low-level invests and fix missions. ARWOs call the shots for both, Lundry said.

“That’s unique to our mission,” Meister said. “The weather officer is telling the pilot where to go to get the best data, and then the navigator and pilots work together to ensure the crew will be safe flying into those conditions.”

A low-level invest mission is flown at between 500 and 1,500 feet to determine if the storm has a closed circulation. If there is a closed circulation, the Hurricane Hunters begin flying fix missions into the system.

Once a system becomes a tropical storm or hurricane, the Hurricane Hunters begin flying at higher altitudes, ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 feet, depending on the severity of the storm.

Aircrews fly though the eye of the storm four to six times to locate the low-pressure center and circulation of the storm. During each pass through the center, they release a dropsonde, which collects weather data on its descent to the ocean surface, specifically gathering information about the surface winds and pressure.

During the invest and fix flights, the aircrews transmit weather data via satellite communication every 10 minutes to the National Hurricane Center to assist experts with their forecasts and storm warnings.

Some people may wonder why a person would want to do this job, but Meister and Lundry both said it was an easy decision for them.

“I want to make sure I’m spending my time on Earth wisely. I want to do something that’s valuable,” Meister said. “(Without us), the only tool that forecasters have for tropical cyclone prediction is satellite data and that’s not enough because a satellite can’t tell you the exact center, wind speeds on the surface and the central pressure of a storm. We have to fly into the storm to gather that data. Providing this data to the NHC and increasing forecast accuracy is rewarding and important to me.”
Both Meister and Lundy said they felt like they were making a difference in the lives of others by doing this mission.

And, as women with degrees in math and science career fields that are typically dominated by men, the pair are setting an example for future generations of young women.

In 2015, women filled 47 percent of all U.S. jobs but held just 24 percent of the jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“There are fewer females in meteorology and other science careers, but I think that’s changing,” Lundry said.

“I was surprised to learn that only 7 percent of pilots in the Reserve are women,” Meister said. “But, that’s why I like going and talking at schools where little girls can see that there is a female doing this job. I like to go on the Caribbean Hurricane Awareness Tour and the U.S. Hurricane Awareness Tour to show young women there is a girl on this plane and there is an opportunity out there for them to become an aircrew member.

“Every day during the HAT, a child would ask if girls fly on this plane and we say, ‘yes, and you can too.’”

The pilot’s advice to young women is to push themselves and just try something challenging, even though it might be difficult to take that first step.

“Get out of your comfort zone and try things you don’t think you can do because what you’re capable of will surprise you,” she said. “Focus on being teachable. Do your best to learn the material and then try something harder. By successfully passing courses in school, you are building a track record of success for yourself. In high school, I never would have thought I’d be where I am today, but the military made that possible.”

(Losurdo is the public affairs officer for the 403rd Wing.)

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