by Amaani Lyle
American Forces Press Service
1/18/2013 - WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- As
the nation rebounds from 19 named storms and 11 major hurricanes in
2012, a small but hardy military organization keeps relentless watch to
track and prepare for such disasters.
Located at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron,
dubbed the "Hurricane Hunters" of the Air Force Reserve, is the Defense
Department's sole organization dedicated to flying into tropical storms
and hurricanes. The unit has performed the mission since 1944.
In a "DOD Live" bloggers roundtable today, Lt. Col. Jon Talbot, 53rd WRS
chief meteorologist, and Capt. John Brady, a meteorologist with the
squadron, said collecting winter storm, hurricane and tropical cyclone
data for the National Weather Service is critical in mitigating loss of
life and property.
Typically, a winter storm mission begins only if the weather system will
have a large, societal impact somewhere in the United States, Talbot
"Winter storms kill more people than hurricanes do," Talbot said, noting
his team's specialty in analyzing data over water, where information is
sparse. "If the National Weather Service is seeing a lot of uncertainty
in their [data], they'll contact our liaison team."
Talbot and Brady oversee 20 flight meteorologists responsible for acting
as mission directors aboard the fleet of 10 WC-130J reconnaissance
aircraft and crews from the 403rd Wing, also based at Keesler. The
weather experts collect and relay information such as storm center and
intensity, known as models or numerical predictions, to the Miami-based
National Hurricane Center.
"Over the open waters of the Pacific and Atlantic, there's nothing out
there for the models to ingest, so we get extra data to pump into the
model," Brady said. "The forecast accuracy can go up 15 to 20 percent
just by gathering that data."
But winter-storm tracking missions in the Northeast and Northwest
corners of the United States, Talbot said, differ from conventional
hurricane tracking. These are high-altitude missions, usually at 30,000
to 34,000 feet, that supplement data from an upper-air balloon
"It's not an active environment [as with] a hurricane, where you're
right in the middle of it [because] you're a lot lower," Talbot said.
Brady agreed and explained the squadron's use of dropsondes -- small,
expendable, parachute-like meteorological devices that collect
information and send the coded data back to weather trackers.
"Our goal is to fly as high as possible and drop our weather dropsondes
at predetermined points to measure the atmosphere ... and get that
information to the National Weather Service so they can increase the
forecast accuracy for developing winter storms," Brady said. "The longer
they flew, the lighter the aircraft got due to less fuel, so they were
able to get higher and higher with each one." Hurricane Hunters,
particularly in the Atlantic basin, often fly a day or so ahead of a
weather system before its main impact, he added.
The data can even provide rescuers an immediate, life-saving advantage,
Brady said, relating a recent example of collaboration with the Coast
Guard. In October 2012, Tropical Storm-turned-Hurricane Rafael caused
heavy rains and formidable gusts that thwarted rescue efforts for two
men and one woman whose twin-engine Piper Aztec aircraft crashed near
St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Coast Guard rescue crews called on the Hurricane Hunters, who were in
the area and were able to spot from high above an oil slick and aircraft
debris. Although the other two passengers perished, the woman was
rescued, thanks to the Hurricane Hunters' ability to identify and relay
critical coordinates of the survivor's location.
"[The Coast Guard] took over and ultimately did find the rest of the
debris and one female survivor still clinging to life," Brady said. "I'm
sure she was extremely grateful to see some folks coming to get her,
[and] that's just one example of how we can intercoordinate with the
different branches through search and rescue."
After Hurricane Katrina crippled the Gulf Coast in 2005, Talbot said,
the use of instruments such as remote wind sensors now enable the team
to provide even greater detail about how winds are likely to affect a
coastal area when a hurricane comes ashore.
"We're able to map the entire area under a hurricane," Talbot said.
"During Katrina, we had only one or two airplanes [with that] instrument
installed, and now we've gone to the entire fleet."
Talbot added that being able to map the area under a hurricane is a
"gigantic benefit" for not only forecasters at the hurricane center, but
for the local emergency management workers assessing how and where to
evacuate people. The colonel also noted that collaboration with the
National Hurricane Center and National Weather Service likely will pave
the way to develop future capabilities such as enhancing radar and
satellite communications to better track real-time hurricane changes.
"NASA has flown over hurricanes using ... high-altitude Global Hawks
outfitted with special instrumentation," Talbot said. "We're trying to
get to a point where we can develop [similar] remote sensors."
Still, mission requirements, Talbot noted, ultimately will be defined by
the needs of the Hurricane Hunters' main customer, the National Weather
Service's National Hurricane Center.
"[What we do at] the 53rd [WRS] and the Air Force Reserve has always
been a great mission for us," Talbot said. "We're proud to be able to
help mitigate the cost and protection of lives during hurricanes and we
look forward to continuing this mission proudly."