KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
Coordination—it is the key to any successful organization or event; and, when that event happens to be a hurricane, which requires aerial reconnaissance to gather life-saving weather data for forecasts—it’s imperative.
In order for the Hurricane Hunters, whether that’s the Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Air Operations Center at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, Florida, to do their job effectively they rely on what’s commonly referred to as CARCAH.
That would be Chief, Aerial Reconnaissance Coordination All Hurricanes. It’s quite the title but with that big name comes big responsibilities for the three-man team, a geographically separated sub-unit of the 53rd WRS located at the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Florida.
CARCAH’s mission is to act as a single point of contact to coordinate reconnaissance flight requirements into storms. They then forward those requirements from the NHC and Central Pacific Hurricane Center to the 53rd WRS, a unit of the Air Force Reserve’s 403rd Wing, said Warren Madden who is the senior meteorologist and leads CARCAH working with fellow meteorologists Steve Feuer and Scott Gibbon.
“The key word there is ‘coordination,’” said Madden, who has been with CARCAH since 2014, and also served as a traditional reservist as an aerial reconnaissance weather officer with the 53rd WRS from 1998 until he retired in 2012. He also worked as a television meteorologist and a Lockheed-Martin computer programmer for the C-130 Super Hercules aircraft.
“Our job is to coordinate all the reconnaissance activity that happens both with the 53rd and NOAA’s AOC,” he said. “The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans can be data sparse environments, due to the lack of radar and weather balloons in those areas and satellite data can be incomplete. There is some information that we can only get by going into the belly of the beast, and that is why manned reconnaissance is still taking place; because that data is critical to forecasters and improves forecasts somewhere in the range of 10 to 25 percent. CARCAH is part of the process to make sure the best possible information is available to the forecasters so they can get the most accurate forecast possible. We want people to trust the forecasters and emergency managers so that when they need to take action, they do.”
Getting this data is a huge task. The Hurricane Hunters’ operations area is immense, ranging from the mid-Atlantic to Hawaii. While other C-130 units receive their taskings from the geographic combatant commander they support or the Air Force Reserve Command for training missions, the 53rd WRS is unique, said Lt. Col. Anthony Wilmot, 53rd WRS director of operations.
“CARCAH establishes a cohesive link between the NHC, NOAA AOC, and the 53 WRS, and bridges the gap between forecasters and aircrew collecting data,” said Wilmot.
While the squadron is aligned under AFRC, weather reconnaissance taskings originate at the NHC, which falls, not under the Department of Defense, but the Department of Commerce. Through an interagency agreement, tropical weather reconnaissance is governed by the National Hurricane Operations Plan and winter storm reconnaissance falls under the National Winter Storm Operations Plan. During hurricane season, the NHOP requires the squadron to support 24-hour-a-day continuous operations, with the ability to fly up to three storms simultaneously with response times of 16 hours.
“CARCAH ensures the employment and execution of these two national plans,” said Wilmot. “Without this group of dedicated professionals, the mission would be impossible to execute.”
To accomplish the mission, the 53rd WRS has 10 full-time Reserve aircrews and 10 traditional Reserve part-time crews available to fly the 10 WC-130J aircraft to meet weather requirements.
Managing these requirements and the data from several aircraft when flying more than one storm can get challenging, especially if there is more than one storm, which does happen, said Madden. The 53rd WRS flew Irma, Jose and Katia simultaneously from three locations in 2017. When there are multiple storms to fly, missions are given priority based on their location and threat of landfall. When tasked, the Hurricane Hunters collect data such as central pressure, wind speed and direction, relative humidity and temperature, as well as other information, which is sent by satellite to the NHC every 10 minutes to provide the latest information to forecasters.
“We are that link between the aircraft and forecasters and the rest of the world,” said Madden. “While they are flying we act as a conduit; they are sending the data down from the aircraft to us and we look the data over, providing quality control, making sure it is meteorologically accurate. The last thing we want is for inaccurate data to be released to muddy the water over how strong the storm is or what directions the storm is heading.”
According to Ken Graham, NHC director, CARCAH plays a significant role in maintaining not only the relationship between forecasters and the Hurricane Hunters, but also in the decisions NHC makes based off the information they provide.
“CARCAH plays a critical role in our mission here at the National Hurricane Center,” he said. “They serve as a conduit to convey our mission requirements, understand asset availability, and run real time data to the hurricane specialists when we need it the most. In a hurricane, getting flight data out to the operations floor can influence forecast, watch, and warning decisions that ultimately save lives.”
While hurricane season activities are what the Hurricane Hunters are best known for, they do work year round and CARCAH plays a role in those missions as well. During the winter season, CARCAH works with the National Center of Environmental Prediction to coordinate winter storm requirements, which also includes atmospheric river support over the Pacific Ocean, as part of the NWSOP.
“The Hurricane Hunters fly winter storms that may affect the East Coast providing data to help forecasters prepare cities for big snow events,” said Madden. “And, in past few years, they have been flying atmospheric rivers. ARs are firehoses of atmospheric moisture that are pointed at various points along the West Coast and can lead to enormous amounts of snowfall in the mountains and enormous amounts of rainfall which can lead to flooding and mudslides. We’ve been going out and flying these missions to gather information of how much moisture is coming so emergency managers on West Coast can prepare.”
Much like the hurricane mission, Madden and his colleagues check continuous streams of data, reviewing it for accuracy and then getting it out to the world to help improve forecast where it can help the most people, he said.
Protecting life and property and helping people is what the job is about, according to Madden. And, that’s why they are at the NHC.
“Many people ask, ‘Why is CARCAH at the NHC? Why not Keesler?’ The answer to that question is, that coordination between the DoD, DoC and NOAA is what makes this mission possible,” said Madden. “If done remotely, it is a lot more complicated, and there would be missed opportunities. While COVID has made things a bit more challenging with teleworking, we are still able to work face-to-face, which enables us to efficiently use the limited resources we have, and maximize the benefit to forecasters. This capability impacts those who are relying on those forecasts. Quite frankly, we assist with making life and death decisions.”
Whatever Mother Nature brings this hurricane season, which is projected to be busier than normal, the Citizen Airmen of the Hurricane Hunters and CARCAH are prepared to respond at a moment's notice to provide data for NHC forecasts, which plays a critical role in alerting coastal residents about potential weather hazards.
Take a virtual tour of the CARCAH office at http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/tour/carcah/