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Looking for trouble: Hurricane Hunters have a long history of tracking storms

1st Lt. Ryan Smithies, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron pilot, flies a WC-130J Super Hercules in the eye of Hurricane Dorian.

1st Lt. Ryan Smithies, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron pilot, flies a WC-130J Super Hercules in the eye of Hurricane Dorian Sep. 4 off the coast of Savannah, Georgia. ( 1st Lt. Ryan Smithies)

The U.S. Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters fly in the eye of Hurricane Dorian.

The U.S. Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters fly in the eye of Hurricane Dorian, Aug. 31, 2019. (Staff Sgt. Diana Cossaboom)

U.S. Naval Academy Midshipman 1st Class Julia Von Fecht prepares an airborne expendable bathythermograph.

U.S. Naval Academy Midshipman 1st Class Julia Von Fecht prepares an airborne expendable bathythermograph for deployment during a Hurricane Hunter mission into Hurricane Dorian (Lt. Col. Marnee A.C. Losurdo)

Maj. Gen. Sidney Novaresi, then-4th Air Force commander, congratulates Staff Sgt. Wanda Busby.

Maj. Gen. Sidney Novaresi, then-4th Air Force commander, congratulates Staff Sgt. Wanda Busby, the first female weather observer in the Air Force Reserve in 1977. (Courtesy photo)

Capt. Billy Boothe, navigator of the “Details Later!,” takes a drift reading to track the course of the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944.

Capt. Billy Boothe, navigator of the “Details Later!,” takes a drift reading to track the course of the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944. (U.S. Army Air Force photo)

The crew of the “Details Later!” before flying a 
hurricane reconnaissance mission

The crew of the “Details Later!” before flying a hurricane reconnaissance mission from West Palm Beach, Florida. (U.S. Army Air Force photo)

When the Hurricane Hunters from the Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, flew 25 separate missions to gather data inside Hurricane Dorian in late August and early September, it marked another chapter in the Air Force’s long history of flying directly into deadly storms.

Seventy-five years ago, on Sept. 12, 1944, a crew from the Army Air Force Weather Wing’s 9th Weather Squadron Detachment, stationed at Morrison Field, West Palm Beach, Florida, flew their B-25 bomber called “Details Later!” equipped with “barometers and other meteorological instruments” into the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944.

Billy Boothe Jr., the son of navigator Lt. Col. Billy Boothe Sr., recently shared an article from the January 1945 issue of Flying Aces magazine written by Ben Field that highlighted that mission into the Great Atlantic Hurricane.

While flying into the storm, Boothe, a captain at the time, was responsible for not only navigating the storm, but also taking drift readings on a drift meter to determine the storm course. He and 2nd Lt. Jerome Pressman, the flight meteorologist, gathered data and directed the pilot, Capt. Allen Wiggins, and co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Victor Klobucher, through the storm.

The story describes the conversion of the bomber for use during a storm mission and what it was like to fly into the “tearing, wrenching fury and darkness of a tropical hurricane,” where the aircrew would be drenched with water when it seeped through the Plexiglas seams.

Boothe reported wind readings from 42 knots up to 97 knots and described the ocean as “a raging green and white mess with green streaks so long and solid it was impossible to tell where they began or ended.”

Wiggins described how the crew entered the storm, lost control of the aircraft because of the loss of lift and the rapid gain and loss of altitude, fought to control the aircraft, and finally exited the storm.

The crew of “Details Later!” never made it into the eye of this storm, but they helped lay the foundation for countless Air Force weather reconnaissance missions to come.

Master Sgt. Lee Snyder, who retired from the 53rd WRS as a dropsonde system operator and loadmaster, flew his first storm mission into Hurricane Camille in 1969 on a C-130B Hercules, while he was stationed at Ramey Air Force Base, Puerto Rico.

“It was a terrible storm, but I was too wrapped up in the mission to even understand the magnitude of the damage it wreaked on the Gulf Coast at the time,” Snyder said. “We didn’t have time to get up to look around in the storm.”

Snyder said, at the time, Airmen had to actually go out and hunt the hurricanes.

“When we were at Ramey, we would fly program tracts between the island and the African coast, in a south-southeastern direction, a north-northeastern direction and into the Gulf,” he said. “Of course, this was pre-satellite, so the name ‘Hurricane Hunters’ came from us having to go look for the weather systems and determine if they were going to form into a storm.”

These program tracts were shaped like big rectangles or circles and were pre-planned by the navigators. When the crews were briefed on the tract assigned that day, they already knew how many dropsondes would be released and the flight duration.

“The weather data we collected, when it was sent back to the National Hurricane Center, would establish if there was an anomaly in the weather and if it warranted further investigation,” Snyder said. “Then we had an area to focus on instead of these large areas we were flying because we truly hunted back in those days.”

Snyder was part of the weather reconnaissance squadron’s move from Ramey to Keesler in 1973. Not long after the move, Staff Sgt. Wanda Busby, now a retired major, became the first female in the Air Force to fly into a hurricane, in a C-130H model aircraft.

“I was more excited than anything else for my first mission, but I don’t really remember the storm part,” she said. “Because as a student on your first time out, you were too busy doing the job and what needed to be done to actually think about it being a storm.”

In the H model, like the B and E models, the weather officer was located on the flight deck and the dropsonde operator was in the back of the aircraft behind a large internal fuel tank.

If it was busy, the dropsonde operators got up long enough to put the drops in, sit back down to do the calculations, document changes and plot those changes on a chart.

“Some of the worst storms I ever flew in were the ones along the East coast when we were tracking thunderstorms,” Busby said. “While the hurricanes and tropical storms that were organized weren’t that rough, these disorganized thunderstorms were very rough. I remember hearing we ran up on a water spout one time, but I didn’t get to see it because I was too busy in the back of the plane.

“When we started off, nothing was automated and we had to do everything manually,” she said. “We would get the ticker tape information with the pressure, temperature and dew point on it from the dropsondes sent back to the plane. Then we would use a type of ruler that had stripes on it to look at one thing at a time, evaluate information to look for changes across the numbers, plot those on the map and find the significant and mandatory levels to transmit to the weather officer, who would verify the information and radio it to the NHC.”

Today, the weather officer, or aerial reconnaissance weather officer, is still in charge of sending the data to the NHC, but it is done in the form of an instant message and they transmit within minutes of getting the information.

“When I first got into the unit, there were times we had to send the data codes via (high frequency) radio,” said Maj. Nicole Mitchell, an ARWO in the 53rd WRS, and the last ARWO still serving who flew in the C-130H. “Now sending code is done via satellite transmissions and we have a satellite phone if the message doesn’t go through. We also had to complete calculations by hand as a back-up to the equipment.”

Changing over to the C-130J Super Hercules, the single reserve fuel tank was moved from inside the aircraft to the exterior. A second tank was added so now a reserve tank hangs below each wing. This move also brought about the transition of the weather officer’s station from the flight deck to the cargo area next to the loadmaster.

Mitchell said that while the computer the weather officer uses has pretty much stayed the same, another upgrade came in the form of the Stepped Frequency Microwave Radiometer, nicknamed the “Smurf.” This piece of equipment is used to read the wind speed from the surface of the water. This was previously done visually by the weather officer.

“Learning how to visually read waves was one of the first things I had to do,” Mitchell said. “We used a chart that, depending on what altitude you are at, tells you how the waves are going to look and what that means for wind speeds.

“So just starting to see white caps means not a lot of wind. When the wind is really cranking, more air and bubbles get into the water and you start seeing big foam lines and enough wind to streak it backward, then, the chart shows an upgrade to the wind speed levels,” she said. “When the water starts getting a green tint because of that aeriation, then you know it is a higher level of wind speed.”

The 53rd WRS crews who tracked Hurricane Dorian were able to provide data to the National Hurricane Center in near real-time as they passed through the eye of the storm numerous times.

“Our mission is to go out and find the exact center of the storm and find how big the wind radius is and figure out what is going on in the storm environment,” said Capt. Garrett Black, 53rd WRS aerial reconnaissance weather officer. “We then relay that information to the National Hurricane Center to improve their forecasts.”

In addition to their own atmospheric data collection mission, the 53rd WRS partners with the U.S. Naval Academy to collect water temperatures in front of, directly under and behind a tropical system.

“We’ve been flying with the Navy for a number of years now and they’ve been releasing buoys in front of hurricanes and in the hurricane environment to see how the water interacts with the atmosphere and how that overall affects the intensity of a hurricane,” Black said. “It’s adding more data to help solve this very difficult puzzle that is the genesis of storms and intensity of hurricanes.”

The midshipmen of the Training and Research in Oceanic and Atmospheric Processes in Tropical Cyclones Program conduct their own data collection mission as they ride along with the 53rd WRS.

“While the Hurricane Hunters are collecting atmospheric measurements, we’re working closely with the loadmasters and conducting our oceanic measurements,” said U.S. Navy Capt. (Dr.) Beth Sanabia, an oceanography professor at USNA.

The data collected by the Navy is uploaded to the global telecommunications system. The data is in a format that is recognized by forecast modeling centers around the world.

The combined efforts of atmospheric and oceanic data collection increases the accuracy of forecasts, said Sanabia.

“Satellites are great these days, but they’re still missing a lot of (weather) information that cannot be collected via satellite,” Black said. “So, it’s important we get into the storm environment and sample in three dimensions to see what is going on in the storm by releasing our dropsondes, observing the surface of the water and getting all the data at flight levels to create that big picture of the storm to be ingested by forecast models and minimize errors.”

Similar to the first days of hurricane hunting during World War II, what crew members see and experience while flying through storms remains basically the same. Hurricanes still have the same intensity and destructive power. The big difference is the hurricane hunters of today go directly to where they are needed to gather data that saves lives instead of having to go hunt down the storms.

Busby said it best when she said, “Weather is both an art and a science. Forecasting can’t be done without people involved. So while the newer planes are more automated and satellites tell them where to go, they still can’t get the data without people going into the storms.”   #ReserveReady

(Kendziorek and Carranza are assigned to the 403rd Wing public affairs office.)