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Hurricane Hunters: navigators guide through storms

Capt. Julie Fantaske, navigator for the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base Miss., looks on as her pilot crew members steer through Hurricane Douglas from Barbers Point Kapolei, Hawaii, July 26, 2020. The 53rd WRS is part of the Air Force Reserve 403rd Wing and is the only unit of its kind in the entire Department of Defense. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Kristen Pittman)

Capt. Julie Fantaske, navigator for the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base Miss., looks on as her pilot crew members steer through Hurricane Douglas from Barbers Point Kapolei, Hawaii, July 26, 2020. The 53rd WRS is part of the Air Force Reserve 403rd Wing and is the only unit of its kind in the entire Department of Defense. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Kristen Pittman)

Maj. Mark Withee, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron navigator, has been flying with the Air Force Reserve for five years and has more than 3,600 flight hours in the C-130. He said that his most memorable storm was a night flight during Hurricane Michael, because as they were tracking it, the Hurricane was rapidly intensifying and made his job that much more busy and exciting due to the constant changes in flightpaths as the storm neared land. (U.S. Air Force photo by Maj. Mark Withee)

Maj. Mark Withee, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron navigator, has been flying with the Air Force Reserve for five years and has more than 3,600 flight hours in the C-130. He said that his most memorable storm was a night flight during Hurricane Michael, because as they were tracking it, the Hurricane was rapidly intensifying and made his job that much more busy and exciting due to the constant changes in flightpaths as the storm neared land. (U.S. Air Force photo by Maj. Mark Withee)

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --

The 403rd Wing’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron based out of Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, is the only Department of Defense organization that flies weather reconnaissance. 

In this specialized unit of Reserve Citizen Airmen, a crew is made up of a minimum of five members consisting of a pilot, copilot, navigator, aerial reconnaissance weather officer, and loadmaster who is also the dropsonde operator.

While the pilots handle the controls of the WC-130J Super Hercules, there is a third person positioned behind them, known as the navigator or ‘nav’ for short.

Adding to the safety of the weather mission are aerial pathfinders, such as Capt. Julie Fantaske, 53rd WRS navigator. She has been a Reserve Citizen Airman for 17 years and was a prior C-130 tactical airlift crew chief.

“Although the navigator (position) has gone away in other aircraft, we’re an extra measure of safety,” said Fantaske. “We’re an extra set of eyes and ears, we’re able to call things out and interject when needed, and it’s a very humbling experience to know the mission we accomplish has a real time impact.”

Fantaske said that when the pilots are busy handling the airplane through severe weather, flying can be intense and navigators are there to assist when necessary.

Navigators are responsible for preparing flight plans, which include routes, headings, checkpoints, and times. During flight, they operate from their station using equipment such as GPS, radio, radar, and communication systems that assist in guiding the aircraft through weather.

“Like many of us in aircrew positions, we have people skills necessary to communicate amongst the crew,” said Maj. Mark Withee, 53rd WRS navigator. “As a nav, we have to be the middle man between the weather officer and pilots, and we have to be able to compromise on a route to get to an area of interest, which is crucial in a storm.”

Withee explained that while weather officers are gathering weather data and are requesting flyover of an area of interest, it may not be safe for the aircraft to take a direct route. Thus, the navigator plots the safest course to accomplish the request and accomplish their mission.

Prior to flying with the Hurricane Hunters, Withee flew tactical airlift with a couple of active duty units and has multiple tours in the Middle East.

“My career has always been in the C-130, so flying in the WC-130 is no different as I am very familiar with it and guiding the crew is very streamline,” said Withee. “Flying with five of your closest friends almost makes it feel like a party bus, but with a purpose, and to me it’s very fulfilling knowing that our mission has a direct impact on people’s lives.”

The Oregon native has been flying with the Air Force Reserve for five years and has more than 3,600 flight hours in the C-130. He said that his most memorable storm was a night flight during Hurricane Michael, because as they were tracking it, the Hurricane was rapidly intensifying and made his job that much more busy and exciting due to the constant changes in flightpaths as the storm neared land.

The Hurricane Hunters’ goal is to get the aircraft and its crew through their weather data collection mission and send that information to the NHC for forecasters to plug into their weather models for better forecasting predictions. The overall goal is to save lives and infrastructure through warnings and advisories generated by the collected data.

“Being able to witness the immediate impact our mission has on the people who are affected by the storms we track is in itself a reward, being able to help anyone on the ground is an amazing feeling,” said Fantaske. “This is the best job I’ve ever had and I would not trade it for any other.”