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Tracking Sandy

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Jeff Kelly
  • 315th AW Public Affairs
While Hurricane Sandy was setting her sights on a collision course with the Northeast coast, the world famous "Hurricane Hunters" from the Air Force Reserve's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron were flying inside the massive storm, relaying critical data to National Weather Service forecasters on the ground.

Four six-person crews from the 53rd WRS and their maintenance and support staff deployed to Hunter Army Airfield last weekend from their home base at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. While there, the crews began flying specially equipped WC-130J Hercules aircraft through the eye of the storm on weather reconnaissance missions.

"This is going to be a big one," said 53rd WRS aircraft commander, Maj. Sean Cross. "This storm is hitting the most densely populated part of our country and will effect tens of millions of people. They retire the names of storms that cause catastrophic and overwhelming damage to an area. It is just my opinion, but I believe the name Sandy will be retired."

Statistics from the National Weather Service support Maj. Cross's hunch. Sandy is the biggest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic, with its clouds extending some 2,000 miles from Canada to Florida. The foot of rain that is forecast to fall in some parts of the Mid-Atlantic would be expected to occur once every 500 to 1,000 years. It is a monster storm.

On a typical mission that can last up to 12 hours in the air, the aircrews crisscross the storm in what is called an "alpha pattern." Sophisticated onboard instruments and small canisters containing high-tech sensors that are dropped by parachute to the ocean's surface collect accurate measurements of the storm's location and intensity. That information is fed continuously to the National Hurricane Center via an onboard satellite link.

"We are the eyes and ears of the forecasters on the ground," said Cross. "We will fly this storm up until the very last second that it makes landfall so that the absolute latest information is available to those forecasters. Better information quite literally means saving lives."

The unique and daring nature of the Hurricane Hunter's mission always draws the media's attention. Local and regional television meteorologists and a film crew with The Weather Channel's television show "Hurricane Hunters" were allowed to fly on several of the missions this week including the final flight as Hurricane Sandy made landfall late Monday evening.

"Being onboard flights this week, including the final flight into Hurricane Sandy was hugely important for our project, which is capturing the significance of the Hurricane Hunter mission and showing the world how the men and women of the 53rd WRS provide an invaluable public service," said Christian D'Andrea, creator, executive producer and director for TWC's "Hurricane Hunters."

This sense of purpose was not lost on the regional meteorologists who were able to experience this unique mission first-hand.

"For us, this brings the process to life," said WCBD Chief Meteorologist Rob Fowler. "We talk on TV about the Hurricane Hunters all of the time, but now we can say that we walked in their shoes, even if that was for just a small amount of time.

"We can now offer our viewers perspective that only a select few can give," he said. "It has certainly opened my eyes a little wider."

Even though the professional experience was useful for the meteorologists who were lucky enough to catch a ride, the personal experience was something that they will carry with them for a long time.

"Regardless if you are into weather or not, this is an incredible experience," said Kris Allred, WSAV chief meteorologist. "I spend my evenings looking at maps, building maps and then showing maps to the public.

"Flying with the Hurricane Hunters takes me into the eye of the hurricane that I'm showing on that map," he said. "In such a historical storm, I will remember this experience for the rest of my life."