The Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron Hurricane Hunters wrapped up their aerial reconnaissance efforts for Tropical Storm Elsa, July 7, after the storm made landfall on the northwest coast of Florida.
The 53rd WRS, which is assigned to the 403rd Wing, is the only unit of its kind in the Department of Defense. In coordination with the National Hurricane Center and the chief, Aerial Reconnaissance Coordination All Hurricanes team, the unit flies missions into tropical systems to collect atmospheric data used by forecasters to create more accurate models.
To accomplish their mission, the squadron has 10 specially modified WC-130J Super Hercules. A basic crew consists of two pilots, one navigator, one aerial reconnaissance weather officer, and a loadmaster/dropsonde operator.
Using stepped frequency microwave radiometers attached to the wings and dropsondes that deploy from the aircraft via a specialized pallet, the crew is able to measure atmospheric properties – such as rainfall, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, and dew point – that can’t easily be detected by satellite. The ARWO reviews the data in-flight and sends it in real-time to the NHC who integrate it into their models prompting appropriate guidance for residents in affected areas.
For the bulk of the missions into Elsa, the squadron sent a routine deployment package – three aircraft, three aircrews and maintenance personnel – to operate out of Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida.
“The biggest factor in deciding to go to Homestead was that some of the models had Elsa going close to our normal forward operating location, St. Croix, so that was the best option to reach the storm,” said Capt. Stephen Bichsel, 53rd WRS mission commander for the operations at Homestead ARB. “It was very easy working with airfield management at Homestead, and the 482nd Operations Support Squadron did great accommodating us, so we could get the mission done.”
After a total of five Hurricane Hunters missions out of Homestead ARB, Elsa approached Cuba as a strong tropical storm late July 4. The deployed aircraft made their way back home before conditions in South Florida began to deteriorate.
The unit continued to support reconnaissance efforts from here until landfall, flying an additional four missions, and could possibly resume missions if the system remains a threat once it reaches the Atlantic.
“Every deployment and storm is different and has its own challenges,” Bichsel said. “That’s why we debrief after each deployment to go over what went right and what we could’ve done better, allowing us to constantly improve the way we execute the mission. Ultimately the squadron is going to do what it must to get the mission done and get that data to the National Hurricane Center so they can get those models out and people can prepare.”