Hurricane Hunters

Hurricane Hunters

Hurricane Hunters are aircraft that fly into tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic Ocean and Northeastern Pacific Ocean for the specific purpose of directly measuring weather data in and around those storms. In the Western Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean, the titles of "Typhoon Chasers" (Air Force) or "Typhoon Trackers" (Navy) are used for these organizations. In the United States, the Air Force, Navy, and NOAA units have all participated in this mission. Before artificial satellites were used to find storms, the military units flew routine weather reconnaissance tracks to detect formation of tropical cyclones. Although satellite data has revolutionized weather forecasters' ability to detect early signs of tropical cyclones before they form, there are still many important tasks they are not suited for. Satellites cannot determine the interior barometric pressure of a hurricane, nor provide accurate wind speed information.

Reasons for use

Before artificial satellites were used to find storms, military units flew routine weather reconnaissance tracks to detect formation of tropical cyclones. While satellites can now perform this part of the mission, they cannot directly measure the weather data inside these storms. Satellites cannot determine the interior barometric pressure of a hurricane, nor provide accurate wind speed information. These data are needed to accurately predict hurricane development and movement.

The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, better known as the “Hurricane Hunters,” is a United States Air Force squadron of aircraft, based in Biloxi, Mississippi, that flies missions into hurricanes and weather systems for research purposes and observation.

“Hurricane Hunters” flies instrumented Lockheed WC-130J aircraft. The area of responsibility for the “Hurricane Hunters” is midway through the Atlantic Ocean to the Hawaiian Islands. The Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters have also been tasked to fly into typhoons in the Pacific Ocean on occasion, as well as gather data in winter storms.

The Hurricane Hunters of the Air Force Reserve are distinct from the NOAA Hurricane Hunters, based at the Aircraft Operations Center at MacDill AFB, in Tampa, Florida using WP-3D Orion and Gulfstream IV-SP aircraft for this mission.

The NOAA Hurricane Hunters mainly perform surveillance, research, and reconnaissance with highly instrumented aircraft including airborne Doppler radar measurements in both Atlantic and Pacific storms.


The Lockheed WC-130J aircraft is a venerable workhorse. It flies directly into the hurricane, typically penetrating the hurricane's eye several times per mission at altitudes between 500 and 10,000 feet. The 53rd WRS “Hurricane Hunters” operate ten WC-130J aircraft for weather reconnaissance.

The Lockheed WP-3D Orion aircraft flown by the NOAA Hurricane Hunters are heavily instrumented flying laboratories specifically modified to take atmospheric and radar measurements within tropical cyclones and winter storms.

The NOAA G-IV Gulfstream high altitude jet conducts hurricane surveillance flying upwards of 4000 miles each flight to document upper and lower level winds that affect the movement of tropical cyclones. The hurricane models (computer models predicting hurricane tracks and intensity) mainly utilize NOAA G-IV dropwindsonde data that is collected both day and night in storms affecting the United States and its territories.

Other aircraft have been used to investigate hurricanes, including an instrumented Lockheed U-2 that was flown in Hurricane Ginny during the 1963 Atlantic hurricane season.

Past aircraft used were the A-20 Havoc, 1944; B-24, 1944-1945; B-17, 1945-1947; B-25, 1946-1947; B-29, 1946-1947. WB-29, 1951-1956; WB-50, 1956-1963; WB-47, 1963-1969; WC-121N 1954-1973; WC-130A,B,E,H 1965-2005.


Current deployment

The Air Force Reserve 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron is currently based at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, and the majority of all of the reconnaissance flights are based from Keesler. The United States Air Force Reserve “Hurricane Hunters” are the only operational military weather reconnaissance unit in the world.

NOAA, a non-military uniformed service, also performs research hurricane missions with a separate fleet of three aircraft, most of which are based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.

Hurricane Katrina

The landfall of Hurricane Katrina on 29 August 2005 caused devastating damage to Keesler Air Force Base, home base of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. The equipment and personnel of the squadron were flying out of Dobbins Air Reserve Base near Atlanta. Despite heavy losses, the squadron never missed a tasked mission from the National Hurricane Center. The 53rd has since returned to Keesler and is now once again flying weather reconnaissance missions from the base.


Storm patrol bill of 1936

The idea of aircraft reconnaissance of tropical cyclones was put forth by Captain W. L. Farnsworth of the Galveston Commercial Association in the early 1930s. Supported by the United States Weather Bureau, the "storm patrol bill" passed both the United States Senate and United States House of Representatives on June 15, 1936. [Associated Press. [
] Retrieved on 2008-06-06.

1943 Surprise Hurricane

The 1943 Surprise Hurricane, which struck Houston, Texas during World War II, marked the first intentional meteorological flight into a hurricane. It started with a bet.

That summer, British pilots were being trained in instrument flying at Bryan Field. When they saw that the Americans were evacuating their AT-6 Texan trainers in the face of the storm, they began questioning the construction of the aircraft. Lead instructor Colonel Joe Duckworth took one of the trainers out, and flew it straight into the eye of the storm. After he returned safely with navigator Lt. Ralph O'Hair, the base's weather officer, Lt. William Jones-Burdick, took over the navigator's seat and Duckworth flew into the storm a second time.

This flight showed that hurricane reconnaissance flights were possible, and further flights continued on an irregular basis. In 1946, the moniker “Hurricane Hunters” was first used, and the Air Force and now Air Force Reserve have used it ever since.

Swan 38

In 1974, a newly converted WC-130 (serial number 65-0965) was transferred to the 54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, the "Typhoon Chasers", at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. The aircraft was sent to investigate Typhoon Bess. The crew departed Clark Air Base in the Philippines with the callsign “Swan 38.”

Radio contact with the aircraft was lost on 12 October 1974, apparently as the aircraft was heading into the typhoon's eye to make a second position fix. There were no radio transmissions indicating an emergency on board, and search teams could not locate the aircraft or its crew. All six crew members were listed as KIA. [Tom Robison. [ Whiskey-Charlie!] Retrieved on 2008-09-26.]

Swan 38 is one of very few of Hurricane Hunter flights lost, and the only WC-130 lost in a storm.

ee also

*Tropical cyclone


External links

* [ 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron homepage]
* [ 403rd Wing Homepage]
* [ Air Weather Reconnaissance Association homepage]
* [ ASN Accident description 13 OCT 1974 Lockheed WC-130H Hercules 65-0965]
* [ NHC Reconnaissance data archive]
* [ The NOAA Aircraft Operations Center homepage]
* [ Navy Hurricane Hunters homepage]
* [ VW-1 All Hands Alumni Association homepage]
* [ Whiskey Charlie]
* [ Why and how people fly into hurricanes] - USA Today - sidebar, "Fatal flights"

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