The English word hurricane comes from the Taino (indigenous people of Florida and the Caribbean) language and translates roughly to “evil spirit of the wind”
No matter what term is used to describe these tropical storms, their violent and unpredictable behavior has made them infamous throughout the globe. Every summer they stalk the oceans, threatening the safety and livelihood of millions living along the coasts.
The relationship between humans and tropical storms is surprisingly intimate, evidenced by the fact that we grant them human names and assign them specific personality traits. Some of these storms can contain as much energy as atomic bombs, leaving coastal populations to watch, wait, and hope for the best.
Those watching up close are the Hurricane Hunters. The actions of these pilots and scientists save countless lives and minimize the economic impact for millions of Americans living along the coast. The weather data collected on these missions allow meteorologists to create more accurate forecast models, which in turn save lives and increase preparedness for coastal impacts.
EVERY STORM HAD A PERSONALITY, AND WE REALLY DID TREAT THEM LIKE CHILDREN BECAUSE YOU NEVER KNEW IF IT WOULD BE A GOOD OR A BAD DAY.Shannon Burns
Hurricane Hunting History
There are actually two different organizations that are famed for their ‘Hurricane Hunting’ activities: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (53rd WRS, a flying unit within the Air ForceReserve). Both have similar missions, but they focus on different science goals. NOAA is a scientific agency thatconducts earth science research, including the collection of hurricane data among other environmental research projects. Scientists at NOAA use cutting-edge research and hightech instrumentation to provide citizens and emergency planners with reliable weather information when they need it. From daily weather forecasts, to climate monitoring and coastal restoration projects, their services support economic vitality and affect more than one-third of America’s gross domestic product.
The beginning of NOAA occurred in 1970 when the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, The Weather Bureau, and the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries were organized into a single agency within the Department of Commerce. NOAA’s aircraft fleet is based at the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center in Lakeland, Florida. Its staff is composed of civilians and uniformed NOAA Corps officers.
The 53rd WRS is based in Biloxi, Mississippi, and is the only operational military weather reconnaissance unit in the world. The origins of the 53rd WRS can be traced back to July 27th, 1943, when U.S. Air Force pilot Colonel Joseph Duckworth successfully flew his single-engine AT-6 trainer plane through the eye of a small but intense hurricane that was forming in the Gulf of Mexico near Galveston, Texas. He was the first person to safely fly through a hurricane, but only did so because of a bet placed against him in a bar room.
The gamble made by Duckworth that day paid off, sewing the seeds for the 53rd WRS. By 1944, the scientific community began to see the value of flying through storms and surveilling them. The 53rd WRS was established and began to patrol the North Atlantic between North America and Europe during World War II.This was before the dawn of satellites, and once the 53rd WRS identified a storm beginning to form, they would fly nearby to collect much needed meteorological data. The 53rd WRS has had different designations since its inception, and has called many airbases home, but the mission has never changed.
A major difference between NOAA and 53rd WRS is that NOAA planes are equipped with more radar and meteorological equipment, and the NOAA fleet is much smaller than the 53rd WRS. When the NOAA is not focused on tracking hurricanes, the administration will conduct ocean wind studies, winter storm research, thunderstorm research, coastal erosion, and air chemistry flights. This is another small difference between these two outfits: the NOAA is geared towards scientific research, while the 53rd WRS is more concerned with continual surveillance of storms and weather systems.
The 53rd WRS also has a more robust operational capability, flying weather missions in an area midway through the Atlantic Ocean to the Hawaiian Islands. Occasionally, they have flown into typhoons in the Pacific Ocean. They have ten aircraft and twenty flight crews, so they have the ability to support 24-hour, continuous operations, flying up to three storms at a time, twice per day. In the winter months they will also track the formation of nor’easters.
The NOAA Hurricane Hunter unit flies three specially equipped aircraft that are built to act as flying meteorological stations. The fleet consists of two Lockheed WP-3D Orions, which are four-engine turboprop aircraft that fly directly into hurricanes. Although these planes survive violent updrafts and high winds, they are not reinforced or built any differently than other models. The only difference is the weather instruments carried onboard. These particular aircraft are known famously as “Kermit the Frog” and “Miss Piggy.” Alongside the P-3 Orions, NOAA has a Gulfstream IV-SP, nicknamed “Gonzo” which flies above “Kermit” and “Miss Piggy” in high-altitude data-collecting missions. The data collected by “Gonzo” is used to supplement the data from the P-3s. All of the aircraft are housed in Florida’s Lakeland Linder Regional Airport near Tampa.
Who are the Hurricane Hunters?
Flying aircraft into violent weather systems is not exactly a typical career choice. However, the men and women of NOAA and the 53rd WRS would also explain that brain surgeons and CEOs have equally risky and challenging professions. To them, it’s simply a matter of perspective.
Jet Linx is proud to employ two former Hurricane Hunters. Shannon Burns, Jet Linx Flight Coordination Specialist, and Nathan Glasscock, a pilot for Jet Linx Tulsa, both used to work with the 53rd WRS, tracking hurricanes across the Atlantic Ocean. Burns served as a Loadmaster and Dropsonde Systems Operator, and Glasscock served as a Navigator and a Pilot on hurricane hunting missions for the 53rd WRS. Contrary to popular belief, they did not fly over hurricanes – they flew directly into them to capture weather data such as temperature, pressure, wind speed, and humidity.
Burns was with the 53rd WRS from 2006 to 2010, and her job was to release dropsondes. Dropsondes are expendable weather devices, similar to weather balloons, that are dropped at certain points all throughout storm systems, with the aim being to collect data about wind speed, pressure, humidity, temperature, and more. A typical weather mission can last eight to ten hours, with an aircraft flying through the eye of a hurricane up to four times or more. As many as 30 dropsonde devices can be launched in one flight. The data from the expendable devices is sent in real time to the National Hurricane Center, which improves the accuracy of their forecasting models.
Burns recalls growing up in Wisconsin and being fascinated by weather systems. She would watch weather reports on television, and then rush outside to see the activity in real time. Another factor for Burns was the fact that she lived very close to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, which hosts one of the biggest air shows in the country.
Although her parents were not aviators or involved in the military, they did take her to the Oshkosh air show to see the aerobatic performances. She recalled, “I got to see planes flying around everywhere during the week of the show. I looked up, and I would see WWII warbirds flying over my head and B-52s with the bomb bays open. So, once I got that itch for aviation at a young age, it was impossible for me not be interested in it.”
Burns finds even her children are becoming interested in aviation and meteorology. Her oldest child used to watch over her shoulder as she prepared reports about weather systems. “She is seven years old, and she’ll sit there and write stories about these planes that are going into the storm and gathering data. They ask questions and they want to know more,” she remarked.
Glasscock served for the 53rd WRS during the infamous Atlantic hurricane season of 2005, which was the most active season ever recorded. In total, there were 28 tropical storms, 15 hurricanes, and seven major hurricanes.
“That was the year of the storm,”Glasscock shared. “Katrina hit and destroyed everything, and shortly after that I flew through Hurricane Wilma, which was the strongest hurricane ever recorded. I also flew through Rita, but there were so many that year I can hardly remember. We had so many hurricanes that we had to go into the Greek alphabet. The last storm I flew that year was Tropical Storm Gamma.”
Glasscock was personally impacted by the storms that he flew through. In 2005, just two months after arriving in Biloxi, MI, his newly purchased home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Glasscock’s family evacuated in time, but they lost everything. “We bought a house in July, had a baby in August, and by September 5th, we had lost it all. We watched Katrina get closer and closer, and decided that when we woke up at 2 a.m. to feed the baby we would check the weather and make a decision. But you have to remember that the data that helped us make that decision to leave – that was the same data that I was collecting as part of my job.”
Despite the catastrophe to Nathan and his family, he continued to fly hurricane missions during that season. “I lived in temporary housing near the base for a few months, and then lived in a FEMA trailer for about eight months and rebuilt the house when I wasn’t flying.”
Current NOAA Pilot, Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Robert Mitchell, notes flights into such dangerous storms require a talented team. “It’s a unique experience to fly into something that everyone else would avoid at all costs,” Mitchell said. “At that point, you’re really just trusting your team.”
“I was always interested in flying and with weather based on the storms I saw in Arizona. I went from the desert to the frozen tundra of Grand Forks, North Dakota, because the University of North Dakota has a great Aviation Science program,” LCDR Mitchell shared. “There, I got a full degree in aviation and also a full degree in meteorology.”
After gaining both degrees and working with the university’s research aircraft, he was told about flying with NOAA, and that’s when he saw that a career with NOAA was probably right for him. Nine and a half years later, he has no regrets about his choices.
LCDR Mitchell began his career flying DHC-6 Twin Otter planes for marine and environmental survey missions withNOAA. After five years of flying the Twin Otter planes, he trained alongside a navy squadron for two and a half years to attain the operational knowledge to fly the P-3 aircraft used in NOAA’s hurricane missions.
“In most aviation careers, the goal of the flight is to reach a destination. With NOAA missions, whether it’s marine mammal observation, snow survey, or hurricane missions, my job is to fly that aircraft and execute an objective that goes towards better forecasting, or warning people about impending storms,” he stated. “It’s fulfilling to have accomplished something that is helping save lives and property.”
Misconceptions about the job
Every Hurricane Hunter acknowledges how dangerous the mission can be, but they also note it is not exactly as turbulent or violent as one would imagine – depending on the particular storm.
Precautions are taken, with radar used to avoid certain parts of the storms that are deemed too risky to fly through. The Hurricane Hunter flight crews do not just barrel haphazardly into a storm – they plan their flight routes meticulously and choose to enter through weaker parts of the storm systems.
“A lot of people assume that the strong storms (category 4 or 5) are going to be the worst, but in reality it’s the tropical storms turning into hurricanes, rapidly intensifying, that are often the most violent and dynamic storms out there,” LCDR Mitchell explained.
Burns echoed his statements. “The less developed a storm is, the bumpier it is. The more developed a storm is, the easier it is to fly. But every storm had a personality, and we really did treat them like children because you never knew if it would be a good or a bad day with them,” she remarked.
Glasscock referenced the time he flew through Hurricane Wilma, the strongest hurricane ever recorded. “Wilma was actually smooth, but it depends on when you fly into the storm. I flew through Hurricane Wilma when it was fully developed, so it was just a big rainstorm across the ocean, nothing wild,” he noted. “However, if I would have been tasked with Tropical Storm Wilma, it would have been a different ride. It all depends on the growth rate and when you’re tasked to fly into them.”
The most turbulent part of a storm is often just outside of the eye wall, where thunderstorms and tornadoes can form. Once the eyewall is penetrated, crews are met with calm and clear skies. Here, crews enjoy the “stadium effect” where the clouds of the eyewall curve outward, giving a sensation that they are in the middle of a giant stadium composed of clouds.
IT’S FULFILLING TO HAVE ACCOMPLISHED SOMETHING THAT IS HELPING SAVE LIVES AND PROPERTY.Lieutenant Commander Robert Mitchell
Why fly through hurricanes?
Why risk flying directly into hurricanes? Why not just collect satellite data or use unmanned aircraft? Both the NOAA and the 53rd WRS operate unmanned vehicles, but the technology is still developing, and right now the best platform to gather data is with manned aircraft.
“NOAA has deployed a small unmanned vehicle, called Coyote, into hurricanes from its WP-3D Orion aircraft, but the technology is still in the developmental stage and is not yet mature enough to replace manned aircraft as a sole means of gathering data for tropical cyclone forecasts,” explained David L. Hall, a Public Affairs Specialist for NOAA. Unmanned aircraft use is gaining traction, however. “NOAA has also teamed up with NASA to test the feasibility of collecting data using larger unmanned aircraft, but manned aircraft remain the primary data-gathering platforms.”
Satellites are perfectly capable of tracking tropical storms overhead, but they fail to provide data from the ground level, which is used to predict the movements of the storms. It’s not possible to tell where a hurricane is moving or how it is developing until you gather data like wind speeds, water temperature, or pressure. None of these data points can be gathered via satellite. It takes boots on the ground, and that is where the Hurricane Hunters come in.
“With the aircraft airborne it is estimated to save $1 million per square mile,” Burns explained. “We don’t just save lives, we save the livelihood of a lot of people. Aside from the human impact, we help to minimize the economic impact.”
When you see a forecaster describing the movement of a storm, they will talk about the ‘cone of probability’ in relation to where the storm might strike land. As a storm develops, the cone of probability shrinks.
The cone that you see shrinking is a result of the hard work of the Hurricane Hunters. Their work increases the accuracy of the forecast by 30 to 40%, allowing authorities to evacuate the proper areas and to begin preparations in order to minimize the impact of hurricanes. The data gleaned from these missions can shave off hundreds of miles of coastline from the forecast, which allows the correct coastal populations to prepare for landfall.
When asked why they choose to fly into hurricanes – on a more personal level – many of the Hunters said that despite the long hours and dangerous nature of the work, it was rewarding because it helped to save lives on the ground.
“To see the forecasts change and to have more accurate information because of the data that is gathered on my flights, that is very fulfilling,” commented LCDR Mitchell.
“There’s no doubt that these flights are saving lives and minimizing the economic impact of these storms.”
“There’s certainly a self-satisfaction of serving your country and helping people, but I would be dishonest if I said that it didn’t come from a small, selfish part of myself. Some people are just odd – they like to jump out of planes, get shot at, or fly through hurricanes!,” Glasscock exclaimed candidly. “Nobody was forcing us to do it. We were doing it only because we wanted to.”
“Some storms were absolutely gorgeous to fly. Once you punctured that eye and you saw the clouds… it would take your breath away. You could hear everyone else on their headsets pausing and gasping,” Burns said. “There was also a camaraderie in it, and I do miss my flying family.”
The more you observe the relationship between humans and hurricanes, the more bizarre it becomes. We give them names and personalities. They have a rare balance of unfathomable power and beauty. The outer edges of hurricanes can be wildly turbulent and dangerous, yet the eye of the storm, they can be unnervingly calm and serene. Much like the Hurricane Hunters that pursue them, they are bold, strong, complex – to be respected, appreciated, and learned from.