53WRS Hurricane Hunters conclude Hurricane Sam operations

The US Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (WRS), named Hurricane Hunters from Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, completed its final flight into Hurricane Sam on October 2.

Hurricane Sam still churned in the Atlantic post the conclusion of flight operations by the 53rd WRS, but due to its location and discontinuation was soon downgraded to a tropical storm. The squadron began flying into the storm from its forward operating station in Saint Croix, US Virgin Islands. 

 53rd WRS WC-130J prepares for take-off in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands for Hurricane Sam Operations. USAF photo by Jessica L. Kendziore

Lt Col Phillip Dobson, 53rd WRS navigator and mission commander for Hurricane Sam operations said: “The reasons we used our forward operating location at Saint Croix, was first, because with the location of the storm, Saint Croix was our safest and best option for flying Hurricane Sam, and the second reason is that we already have our equipment and a working relationship with the airfield in place to keep operations going 24 hours a day.”

The 53rd WRS is assigned to the 403rd wing and is the only unit in the US Department of Defence that performs such a mission. In coordination with the National Hurricane Center (NHC) and the chief, Aerial Reconnaissance Coordination All Hurricanes, the 53rd WRS flies into tropical systems to collect data which is used by forecasters for the creation of more accurate outcomes. 

53WRS WC-130J collects weather data from inside the eye of Hurricane Sam. USAF photo by Maj. Joyce Hirai

The 53WRS operates ten Lockheed Martin WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft, each containing two specifically modified weather stations for the squadron’s missions. The aircrew in addition to the flight deck crew consist of an aerial reconnaissance weather officer (ARWO) and a dropsonde operator who operate within their stations aboard the aircraft. 

The dropsonde is an aerial weather device that is dropped from the aircraft during the flight. "They have a global positioning system, and when they are free falling, they are sending wind direction, relative humidity, temperature, pressure and speed of the storm to the dropsonde computer station," said Tech Sgt Troy Bickham, who is a dropsonde system operator and weather reconnaissance loadmaster. 

A 53rd WRS WC-130J rotates ahead of a Hurricane Hunting mission. USAF Photo by Staff Sgt Kristen Pittman

Once the non-recoverable and biodegradable object lands in the water it completes streaming the data it gathered during its fall and the dropsonde system operator send the information to the onboard ARWO.

After analysis by the ARWO, the information collected from the flights are sent back to the NHC via satellite to be turned into up-to-date and accurate forecasts of the tropical system.

The 53rd WRS conducted a total of ten storm missions before heading back home to Keesler Air Force Base. Dobson added: “There are challenges that come up with each deployment and every deployment is different, just like every storm is different.

“We will debrief, review and improve, but at the end of the day, we are going to do what must be done to complete our mission and get the data to the NHC so they can get the forecast models out to people to be prepared,” Dobson concluded.