Hurricane Hunters are chasing more storms—and say they need more aircraft to do it

Hurricane Hunters are chasing more storms—and say they need more aircraft to do it

ABOARD AN AIR FORCE RESERVE WC-130J—Flying above the Atlantic Ocean, an airman launches a Pringles-can-sized sensor from his 20-plus-year-old aircraft. As it parachutes to the ocean, the sensor sends back temperatures, dew points, wind speeds and directions. If this were a real mission instead of a demonstration flight, the data would help predict a storm’s future path and strength.

But there’s no sensor that measures the increasing strain on the aircraft and crew of the “Hurricane Hunters,” the Air Force Reserve squadron whose life-saving flights into dangerous storms are in more demand every year.

Originally funded in 1996 to fly operations six months out of the year, the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron now flies 10 months a year with the same amount of planes and people. Demand for the squadron during hurricane season has increased by 18 percent since 2018, said Maj. Chris Dyke, an aerial reconnaissance weather officer in the squadron. 

The squadron is in its two-month break now, gearing up for hurricane season, “But to be honest, it’s not enough time for the aircraft. The crewmembers, we’ll figure it out. But the aircraft, you can’t just figure it out, it takes time,” Dyke told a group of reporters ahead of a media flight.

He said the squadron needs more planes to supplement its current fleet: 10 Lockheed Martin WC-130Js, which are a little bigger than standard C-130s, to hold more people and instruments. 

The planes are not simply flying more than originally planned. They’ve got a new winter-season mission as well: tracking atmospheric rivers, said Maj. Gen. McCauley von Hoffman, deputy to the chief of the Air Force Reserve.

“Long story short, they are definitely spread thin. At the same time, they’re now considered an aging weapons system with a number of hours on them, and so parts availability, all of that, is hard, and it’s spread across just those aircraft. So if we had more than that, that puts some relief on the system,” von Hoffman said. 

But finding the money to buy new aircraft and modernize the squadron’s current fleet won’t be easy, given the Air Force’s current budget plans. The service is focused on preparing for a potential conflict in the Pacific, which means modernization dollars are hard to come by for other missions. But von Hoffman argued that this mission is critical at home.  

“Right now, we think about the Indo-Pacific region, [great] power competition, but if you are governor of Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, you really care a lot about modernization of this platform,” von Hoffman said.  

If the Hurricane Hunters don’t have enough aircraft to cover every storm, the squadron said state-side readiness and homeland defense could take a hit. Wing commanders at coastal installations like Homestead or Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida rely on accurate forecasts to see where hurricanes are going and figure out whether aircraft need to be moved, Dyke said.

Last year, the squadron didn’t have enough aircraft to meet demand and had to pull assets that were tracking a storm in St. Croix back to Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi to cover Hurricane Idalia, he said. 

“When we don’t fly a particular storm [and] we’re told to fly a different one, then there are impacts from the one we don’t fly,” Dyke said. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association also has hurricane-hunting pilots who fly similar missions, but they focus on research and collect different data sets, Dyke said. 

“The research that comes from NOAA’s data helps change equations—say, in the model, while what we’re doing is collecting data that’s going into the model that’s actively running,” he said. 

While the Hurricane Hunters make their case for more resources, storms are getting stronger and more dangerous—a trend that will only get worse as the Earth gets warmer in the coming decades. 

Dyke didn’t say whether climate change has contributed to the growing demand for the squadron, but said advancements in research, improvements in the models, and global weather patterns have played a role. 

During a standard mission, the crew flies through various stages of a hurricane, making four to six passes through the eye of a storm to collect weather data and send it back to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.

One of the main tools the Hurricane Hunters use is the Pringles-can sensor—formally, a dropsonde. The plane drops about 20 of the expendable sensors during a typical hurricane mission to gather key data as they drift down to sea level.

Flying aboard one of the Hurricane Hunter’s planes, Dyke and other crew members demonstrated how they drop the sensors through a launcher tube in the WC-130J, which carries a basic crew of five: a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, aerial reconnaissance weather officer, and loadmaster. 

These sensors, along with other data collection methods, allow the Hurricane Hunters to improve the accuracy of forecasts by 20 percent, which saves $1 million per mile of coastline, according to reserve officials. 

Now, less than a month away from the start of hurricane season, the squadron is prepared to be very busy. Already, 2024 is on track to “meet or exceed” the number of operational flying hours in 2023—the highest they’ve had in the last nine years, Dyke said. 

The squadron also saw an uptick in the number of storms it had to fly in the first quarter of the fiscal year—which is particularly challenging while dealing with continuing resolutions and government shutdowns, Dyke said. But the group is finishing up a congressionally mandated review of the program’s resources, he said, and will send that report to Congress once it’s done. 

“I think there’s recognition, particularly in the coastal state delegations, that this is an important mission, that it has to be resourced, and so that request that showed up in the NDAA is that that would have come from them,” von Hoffman said. 

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