On the Hunt for Hurricanes

By Andrea Brown Ross | Photography courtesy of Staff Sgt. Heather Heiney, Army Sgt. Debra Cook, Staff Sgt. Jordan Castelan, Malcolm McClendon, and James Chaney

Maj. Kendall Dunn and Lt. Col. Ivan Deroche fly a WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft into Hurricane Harvey during a mission out of Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi Aug. 24, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Heather Heiney)

Flying into the eye of the storm is a necessary duty for hurricane hunters who strive to keep us informed and safe.
For those who have survived a natural disaster and attempted to rebuild their lives in its aftermath, the thought of experiencing the destruction and danger again may be unbearable. Fall is typically a much-anticipated change of season with many outdoor activities, but the threat of severe weather can ruin the best-laid plans.
Indeed, Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma served as a reminder that some things are out of human control. While many people are trying to escape a storm’s wrath, luckily there are others who spend countless hours flying right into the eye of storms to save lives and minimize damage.
Dedicated meteorologists known as “hurricane hunters” risk potential peril to collect weather data for the National Hurricane Center. Stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi, at the Keesler Air Force Base, the Air Force Reserve 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, referred to as the “hurricane hunters,” fly into the eyes of storms to get the most accurate data.
“They fly storms until landfall or until the storms cease to be a threat to land. The hunters fly missions daily to collect data so the hurricane center can improve its forecasts,” explained Staff Sgt. Heather Heiney, 403rd Wing Public Affairs.
As the data is disseminated across the country, local forecasters then have the ability to inform viewing audiences of potential severe weather. And such has been the case as recent hurricanes have caused astronomical damage at summer’s end.
Todd Demers, meteorologist at WREG News Channel 3 in Memphis, Tennessee, categorized fall as the big transition.
“After a usually hot summer, it is the season we are all waiting for. I’ve been here more than 30 years, and it feels like fall arrives just a little later each year,” shared Demers. “So even though the days are getting shorter, heat remains a possibility well into September and October.”
However, weather officers of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron remind everyone that hurricane season lasts until the end of November.
“Hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30, which is a lot longer than most people realize. The single most important ingredient in the formation of a hurricane is warm sea surface temperatures. Warm water is the fuel that makes hurricanes go,” said Major Jeremy DeHart.
“So naturally, the summer months are when the oceans are the warmest, and that is when we have the most hurricanes. It can also take a while for cooler air temperatures in the fall to have a cooling effect on the oceans, so that’s why we can still see tropical systems develop well into November and even into the early winter months,” he explained.

For Mid-Southerners, the impact of coastal hurricanes can be substantial and even life threatening even miles from coastlines.
“Once hurricanes make landfall they begin to weaken rapidly, but will continue to generate lots of rain. Storms heading our way will likely be down to tropical depression status by the time they arrive in the Mid-South, with a few gusty winds, but the primary threat will be heavy rain,” advised Demers. “Localized flash flooding (when the drains become overwhelmed) and trees falling (wet ground, weakened root structure, gusting winds) are the things we watch for most when the remnants of a tropical system arrive”.
With the help of technology, weather prediction has come a long way since the Farmers’ Almanac, enabling citizens to become better prepared for severe weather.
“It’s two-fold. First, the Severe Storms Prediction Center is great at finding the most suspect areas to be threatened by severe weather. Often times, we are alerted days in advance of a possible severe outbreak. The coverage area continues to be narrowed down as we get closer to a severe event, along with what the threat will be,” Demers explained.
“High winds? Heavy rain? Large Hail? Tornadoes? All of the above? Technology now helps us determine the atmospheric dynamics and the most likely outcome,” he said.
“Second, our Storm Tracker 3-S allows us to locally track severe weather all the way to street level in live, real time. No delays, no waiting for the National Weather Service radar data that could be 5-to-7 minutes old. Keeping Mid-Southerners safe during severe weather has always been our number one priority.”
Being able to use the most current technology available is just one component to being a hurricane hunter as the Air Force’s DeHart explained:
“All aircrew members must meet the physical requirements for flying duty by passing medical screening and attending various survival schools. For the specific hurricane hunter mission, we have four duty positions on our aircraft: pilot, navigator, loadmaster, and weather officer. Each position has its unique requirements for qualification.”
He continued, “As weather officers, we must have at least a bachelor’s degree in meteorology in order to enter the field as a commissioned officer. We also must fly a certain number of tropical systems in order to demonstrate proficiency directing the aircraft while in the storm environment. All in all, it’s about a year and a half of pretty rigorous training before becoming a fully qualified hurricane hunter.”
The off season is a time for the hurricane hunters to prepare for the next active season and continue training.
“Part of our mission is to provide reconnaissance data for winter storms as well. During the cold season, we will fly into developing systems that are anticipated to be significant winter-weather makers,” said DeHart. “As with our tropical weather recon data, the observations are fed into weather models to help better forecast these events.”

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.