From the outside looking in, hurricane forecasts seem fairly simplistic. On any given local weather station, they show either a spaghetti model or a more conical-shaped model predicting a storm’s path and intensity. There might be a high or low-pressure system animated into the graphic as well indicating why meteorologists suspect the projected path.
What the average person does not see from their couch is the immense effort behind the scenes and all of the manpower needed to produce those models.
It takes two flying organizations, three different types of aircraft and coordination with the National Hurricane Center and other entities to consistently make advancements toward more accurately predicting tropical system paths in order to save both lives and money.
On Nov. 13 and 14, the Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron Hurricane Hunters hosted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Hurricane Hunters and representatives from the NHC, National Center for Atmospheric Research and the Chief, Aerial Reconnaissance Coordination All Hurricanes unit at Keesler AFB for an end-of-season meeting.
Both the 53rd WRS and NOAA provide aerial support for the NHC, and their similar, yet separate, missions can sometimes be confused.
In a nutshell, the 53rd WRS flies into hurricanes, using a specially equipped WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft flying at altitudes ranging from 500 to 1,500 feet above the ocean surface for low-level investigations and 10,000 feet for “fixes” or ventures into the center of formed tropical systems. During these flights, a loadmaster releases dropsondes as determined by the aerial reconnaissance weather officer to collect data such as pressure, wind speed and temperature. This data is then sent to the NHC to update models to create a more accurate forecast.
One of the main differences between the 53rd WRS and NOAA is that the 53rd flies their mission solely for the purpose of data collection to send to the NHC (or the National Weather Service for winter storm and atmospheric river flights). NOAA does likewise with the additional component of scientists being on board the missions for real-time research.
NOAA Hurricane Hunters employ two types of aircraft for their missions, the WP-3D Orion and the Gulfstream IV-SP jet. They use the P-3 Orion similarly to how the 53rd WRS uses the WC-130J, the difference is the crews for NOAA are larger due to the amount of scientists needed for research.
The Gulfstream jet flies above storms instead of through them, collecting critical data from high altitudes to supplement the P-3’s findings as well as painting a picture of weather systems in the upper atmosphere surrounding developing hurricanes.
The meeting between these two flying missions and governing bodies provided an opportunity for each organization to review the 2019 hurricane season, sharing what went right, what went wrong and how missions can be improved for next year. Furthermore, it provided an opportunity to share information in an effort to better understand each other and meet face-to-face.
“This is a collaboration,” said Lt. Col. Kaitlyn Woods, 53rd WRS chief meteorologist. “We’re sharing information from where we operate out of, how the airplanes work, and how our training programs are ran to the weather equipment and data we collect.”
In addition to the theme of reviewing and sharing information, there was room for the discussion of advancement on the technological front. Dr. Vanda Grubišić, NCAR’s Earth Observing Laboratory director, was in attendance to discuss her team’s development of the Airborne Phased Array Radar. According to Grubišić, the APAR system, combined with the WC-130J nose surveillance radar data, is designed to improve situational awareness, allow improved safety during extreme weather and provide new insights and context to weather observations. The timeline for the system’s readiness is currently late 2025 or early 2026.
Ken Graham, NHC director, categorized the meeting as a vessel for telling each other how each could help the other. He also briefed the organizations and had much to say on the impact of the flying missions and how they have continuously contribute to improvements on the forecasting front.
“If you think about the last decade and the tracked forecast and how much more improved it has become, it is staggering how we are getting so good with the track,” Graham said. “We still need help with the intensity, so it’s not done yet. Even though we’ve made these improvements the intensity is still a difficult forecast so we’re still learning that science. That is why these missions are so critical.”
Following the all-encompassing briefings, the organizations wrapped up the meeting by dividing into two groups for operations and science breakout sessions to more intricately discuss and share ideas on a litany of topics ranging from equipment and data storing to communications and hurricane-awareness tours, allowing for a more symbiotic relationship between the two missions.
“While the missions are different, they are complementary. While the AOC (Aircraft Operations Center) is out there doing their research missions, they are also figuring out where the storm is, how strong it is and where it’s going,” said Warren Madden, CARCAH reconnaissance coordinator. “Then, all the information the Air Force Reserve is gathering during these recon (sic) missions is available to researchers down the street, so although they are not the exact same missions, they are all pointing to the same goal: increasing knowledge about what is happening with the storm now and increasing knowledge about how each storm forms, evolves and changes for the future. With these missions we can garner more information and help protect U.S. public health.”