KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
The Air Force Reserve 403rd Wing’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, based at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, is the only Department of Defense organization that flies weather reconnaissance.
In this specialized unit of Reserve Citizen Airmen, a crew is made up of a minimum of five members, consisting of a pilot, copilot, navigator, aerial reconnaissance weather officer and loadmaster, who is also the dropsonde operator.
While the pilots handle the controls of the WC-130J Super Hercules and make a lot of headlines, there is a person positioned behind them – the navigator, who is equally critical to mission success.
These aerial pathfinders, like Capt. Julie Fantaske, add to the safety of the weather mission. She has been a Reserve Citizen Airman for 17 years and was a prior C-130 tactical airlift crew chief.
“Although the navigator (position) has gone away in other aircraft, we’re an extra measure of safety,” said Fantaske. “We’re an extra set of eyes and ears, we’re able to call things out and interject when needed, and it’s a very humbling experience to know the mission we accomplish has a real-time impact.”
Fantaske said that when the pilots are busy handling the airplane through severe weather, flying can be intense and navigators are there to assist when necessary.
Navigators are responsible for preparing flight plans, which include routes, headings, checkpoints and times. During flight, they operate from their station using equipment such as GPS, radio, radar and communication systems that assist in guiding the aircraft through weather.
“Like many of us in aircrew positions, we have people skills necessary to communicate amongst the crew,” said Maj. Mark Withee, 53rd WRS navigator. “As a nav, we have to be the middle man between the weather officer and pilots, and we have to be able to compromise on a route to get to an area of interest, which is crucial in a storm.”
Withee explained that while weather officers are gathering weather data and are requesting flyover of an area of interest, it may not be safe for the aircraft to take a direct route. Thus, the navigator plots the safest course to accomplish the request and accomplish their mission.
Prior to flying with the Hurricane Hunters, Withee flew tactical airlift with a couple of active duty units and has multiple tours in the Middle East.
“My career has always been in the C-130, so flying in the WC-130 is no different as I am very familiar with it and guiding the crew is very streamline,” said Withee. “Flying with five of your closest friends is very fulfilling knowing that our mission has a direct impact on people’s lives.”
The Oregon native has been flying with the Air Force Reserve for five years and has more than 3,600 flight hours in the C-130. He said his most memorable storm was a night flight during Hurricane Michael, because as they were tracking it, the hurricane was rapidly intensifying and made his job that much more busy and exciting due to the constant changes in flightpaths as the storm neared land.
The Hurricane Hunters’ goal is to get the aircraft and its crew through their weather data collection mission and send that information to the National Hurricane Center for forecasters to plug into their weather models for better forecasting predictions. The overall goal is to save lives and infrastructure through warnings and advisories generated by the collected data.
“Being able to witness the immediate impact our mission has on the people who are affected by the storms we track is in itself a reward. Being able to help anyone on the ground is an amazing feeling,” said Fantaske. “This is the best job I’ve ever had and I would not trade it for any other.” #ReserveReady
(Carranza is assigned to the 403rd Wing’s public affairs office.) ■