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Hurricane Hunters move to winter storms after above average season

1st Lt. J. Kelsie Carpenter, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron aerial reconnaissance squadron officer, collects meteorological data during Hurricane Matthew Oct. 7, 2016. This data is sent to the National Hurricane Center to improve forecast track and intensity models. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Marnee A.C. Losurdo)

1st Lt. J. Kelsie Carpenter, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron aerial reconnaissance squadron officer, collects meteorological data during Hurricane Matthew Oct. 7, 2016. This data is sent to the National Hurricane Center to improve forecast track and intensity models. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Marnee A.C. Losurdo)

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- The 2016 hurricane season came to an end Nov. 30 and the above-average seasons in the Atlantic and Pacific kept the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron “Hurricane Hunters” busy collecting critical weather data to improve forecasts.

The 53rd WRS flew 75 missions into 13 storms, ten in the Atlantic and three in the Pacific. There were 15 named storms in the Atlantic including seven hurricanes. Five of these storms made U.S. landfall. In the Pacific, there were 21 named storms of which 11 were hurricanes.

The 120-member Air Force Reserve squadron assigned to the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base is tasked by the National Hurricane Center to fly storms from the middle of the Atlantic to past the Hawaiian Islands that have potential to make landfall, said Lt. Col. Kaitlyn Woods, 53rd WRS chief meteorologist.

The Pacific and Atlantic Oceans are data sparse environments due to the lack of radar and weather balloons in those areas and satellite data can be incomplete, she said. So the Citizen Airmen of the 53rd WRS fly into these storms to gather weather data, to include wind speed and direction, temperature, dew point and pressure. This information is sent to the NHC and Central Pacific Hurricane Center to improve their forecasts, watches, warnings and advisories, said Woods.

"This data the Hurricane Hunters provide is vital in improving storm track models, playing a critical role in alerting coastal residents about potential hazards,” she said. “This information saves lives and property as well as millions of dollars by reducing the miles of U.S. coastline that don't have to be evacuated.”

The season started early for the U.S. Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters who began flying storm missions May 27, five days before the official start of the season June 1. The crews flew four missions into Bonnie, which started out as Invest 91L May 27 and was named Tropical Depression Bonnie later that day. Bonnie struck South Carolina as a depression causing flooding and heavy rain over the Memorial Day weekend. Crews also flew Tropical Storm Colin and Julia which caused heavy rains from Northeast Florida to North Carolina. Hurricane Hermine was the first hurricane since Wilma in 2005 to hit Florida. The Hurricane Hunters flew 12 missions into the storm that caused an estimated $800 million in damage. Hurricane Matthew was the most destructive storm of the season. Aircrews flew 24 missions into Matthew which formed off the coast of Africa in late September, became a Category 5 Sept. 30, striking Haiti, Cuba and the Bahamas and scrapping up the Florida, Georgia and Carolina coastlines before making landfall in South Carolina Oct. 7. Matthew caused an estimated $7 billion in damage in the United States and claimed 49 lives.

In the Pacific, the Hurricane Hunters deployed to Hawaii to fly Tropical Storm Darby, which made landfall on the Big Island of Hawaii July 26. Crews deployed again in August and September to fly Hurricanes Madeline and Lester, neither of which made landfall. In all, crews flew 12 missions in the Pacific.

The biggest storms of the season were Matthew and Hermine, both of which had crews working around the clock for days.

“Hurricane Mathew was a challenge due to the amount of days we flew it,” said Woods.

The 53rd WRS started flying out of St. Croix once the hurricane reached the Caribbean. They continued flying it as it traveled up the U.S. East Coast.

The hurricane season set some records and it was unusually long, said Woods.

This hurricane season started with Hurricane Alex Jan. 7 in the Atlantic. The unit didn’t fly the storm since it was way out at sea and didn’t impact the U.S. mainland, said Lt. Col. Brian Schroeder, 53rd WRS aerial reconnaissance weather officer. Another anomaly was Hurricane Otto, which made landfall in Nicaragua in late November. Aircrews spent the Thanksgiving holiday flying into the storm that was the latest hurricane formation on record in in the Caribbean Sea, according to the NHC.

“If we learned anything from this season, it would be that just because the official season is over, it is never too late or early to be prepared,” said James R. Tart, a contracted lead forecaster with the 81st Training Wing, in an email summarizing the season.

The Hurricane Hunters are now prepping for the winter storm missions. The squadron gathers weather data that is sent to the NHC that's used in forecast models produced by the National Center for Environmental Prediction. “If we learned anything from this season, it would be that just because the official season is over, it is never too late or early to be prepared,” said James R. Tart, a contracted lead forecaster with the 81st Training Wing, in an email summarizing the season.

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