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Hurricane Hunters reflect on 2019 Hurricane season

1st Lt. Ryan Smithies, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron pilot, flies a WC-130J Super Hercules in the eye of Hurricane Dorian Sep. 4,2019 off the coast of Savannah, Georgia. During his mission Dorian was a category 2 hurricane and intensified into a category 3. (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Ryan Smithies)

1st Lt. Ryan Smithies, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron pilot, flies a WC-130J Super Hercules in the eye of Hurricane Dorian Sep. 4, 2019 off the coast of Savannah, Georgia. During his mission Dorian was a category 2 hurricane and intensified into a category 3. (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Ryan Smithies)

The U.S. Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters fly in the eye of Hurricane Dorian, Aug. 31, 2019. The WC-130J aircraft flew through the eye of the hurricane four times to gather weather data to determine the intensity and path. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Diana Cossaboom)

The U.S. Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters fly in the eye of Hurricane Dorian, Aug. 31, 2019. The WC-130J aircraft flew through the eye of the hurricane four times to gather weather data to determine the intensity and path. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Diana Cossaboom)

A WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft from the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, aka Hurricane Hunters, taxis its way to its parking spot after completing its mission into Hurricane Dorian, Sep. 5, 2019 at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. The Hurricane Hunters, have flown 25 missions in support of Dorian. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Christopher Carranza)

A WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft from the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, aka Hurricane Hunters, taxis its way to its parking spot after completing its mission into Hurricane Dorian, Sep. 5, 2019 at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. The Hurricane Hunters, have flown 25 missions in support of Dorian. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Christopher Carranza)

Inside the eye of Hurricane Dorian during a Hurricane Hunters mission Sep. 2, 2019. The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, an Air Force Reserve unit located at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi., gathered weather information from inside Dorian. The data they gather is used by the National Hurricane Center for their forecasts. (U.S. Air Force photo by U.S. Navy Midshipman First Class Julia Von Fecht)

Inside the eye of Hurricane Dorian during a Hurricane Hunters mission Sep. 2, 2019. The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, an Air Force Reserve unit located at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi., gathered weather information from inside Dorian. The data they gather is used by the National Hurricane Center for their forecasts. (U.S. Air Force photo by U.S. Navy Midshipman First Class Julia Von Fecht)

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --

Andrea, Barry, Dorian, Fernand, Humberto, Jerry, Karen, Lorena, Nestor and Olga. At first glance one may think this is a list popular baby names for the year, but they’re the names of nine storms the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron flew into during this year’s hurricane season. 

The 2019 hurricane season officially ended Nov. 30, and was an active one for the Reserve Citizen Airmen of the 53rd WRS, widely known as the Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters.

The 53rd WRS is assigned to the U.S. Air Force Reserve’s 403rd Wing on Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. It is the only Department of Defense unit that conducts aircraft reconnaissance missions into severe tropical weather during the hurricane season, which spans June 1 through Nov. 30.

This season the Hurricane Hunters flew more than 684 hours, totaling 80 missions into nine storms over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

“This season was unusual, we were busy, but not by the number of storms. It was busy by how they all fell into place,” said Lt. Col. Anthony Wilmot, 53rd WRS director of operations. “What made this season difficult for us were the threats to Bermuda, it’s a long flight from here, so to stretch way out there from here made it difficult operating out of home station.”

An example Wilmot gave was Hurricane Dorian being a very long storm, 14 days of operations and flown from three different locations, Curaçao, Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida, and Keesler AFB.

The 53rd WRS's area of responsibility ranges from the mid-Atlantic to just west of Hawaii. Through an interagency agreement, tropical weather reconnaissance is governed by the National Hurricane Operations Plan, which requires the squadron to support 24/7 operations, with the capability to fly up to three storms simultaneously with a response time of 16 hours. To provide this quick reaction of aircrew and aircraft maintenance force, the squadron has 10 full-time Reserve aircrews and 10 traditional Reserve part-time crews available to fly 10 WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft outfitted to execute the mission.

“This is my career and passion, especially in hurricane season,” said Maj. Douglas Gautrau, 53rd WRS aerial reconnaissance weather officer. “I missed a lot of the 2018 season, so this season, any time I had the opportunity to fly I tried my best to get into the mix.”

For Gautrau, hurricane season is a two-fold mission, he is a weather officer which acts as a flight director in the storm environment to get the necessary data for the National Hurricane Center, in addition to being an instructor.

“As an ARWO instructor, having a brand new student, they need to get their hurricane flights in,” said Gautrau. “Taking every opportunity to fly and train, was necessary. The only way our ARWOs get fully mission qualified is in the hurricane and tropical storm environment. You can’t duplicate this on the ground and fly a local training line and get signed off. Your mission director skills, crew resource management, and situational awareness need to be experienced in real world/real time in order to get the exposure and fully understand what you’re being qualified to do.”

These weather missions are flown to gather data for the NHC’s models which help improve their forecasts and storm warnings.

According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, their outlook predicted 10-17 named storms, 5-9 hurricanes and 2-4 major hurricanes, meaning Category, 3, 4 or 5 storms. This season produced 18 named storms, six hurricanes, three of which were major hurricanes.  

The squadron kicked off the Atlantic season flying into Sub Tropical Storm Andrea, which formed May 20 and lost strength the following day. The unit also flew Hurricane Barry in July, which was the first hurricane of the season and made landfall in Louisiana causing significant flood damage due to storm surge and heavy rain.

“September was nonstop for the unit operations continuously going on,” said Gautrau. “Hurricane Dorian was very slow moving system that was daunting on our operations and maintenance who were constantly generating aircraft to support.”  

The first major hurricane of the season was Hurricane Dorian. At its peak, it was a Category 5 hurricane and caused severe damage to the Bahama’s, then weakened to a Category 1 when it made landfall in North Carolina. Following in Dorian’s wake was Hurricane Humberto, which passed the northern parts of the Bahamas and within 75 miles of Bermuda before weakening in the northern Atlantic Ocean.

Although 2019 hurricane season has ended, the mission of the 53rd WRS has not. From Nov. 1 to March 31, the squadron flies winter storms off the East and West Coast of the United States and in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Before the hurricane season was over, the winter storm season began Nov. 1, so during that time we have a double duty,” said Wilmot. “Atmospheric River missions start in January. It is becoming a larger portion of the winter storm plan which will increase our ops tempo. So there really isn’t an off season.”

The unit will conduct atmospheric river reconnaissance missions to collect data to determine atmospheric moisture content that pushes into the West Coast of the United States each winter season, which assists flooding forecasts.

In between flying winter storms, atmospheric river missions, and training missions, the squadron will be preparing for the next hurricane season.

Wilmot described how impressed he was with the unit’s crews. Despite continuous maintenance issues and flip flopping from days to nights and back, due to long flights, he said everyone showed heart.

“I’m proud that we have that kind of dedication to duty,” said Wilmot. “There’s not a person here that doesn’t understand the impacts of what we do and what we provide to the American public.”