The Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters are flying their last flight into Hurricane Ian today, their 14th mission into the storm since Sept. 21, collecting data to assist National Hurricane Center forecasters.
Hurricane Ian made landfall in southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm Wednesday afternoon, then made its way across the state as a tropical storm and into the Atlantic where it re-strengthened into a Category 1 storm as it moves toward the coastline of South Carolina today.
The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, assigned to the 403rd Wing, Keesler Air Force Base, is the only one of its kind in the Department of Defense. The Hurricane Hunters flew the system, back when it was 98L, from St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands until Sept. 25 and then started flying the missions from Keesler AFB. This all after wrapping up Hurricane Fiona operations where they flew 12 missions out of Curacao from Sept. 15-21.
Maj. Kendall Dunn, 53rd WRS chief pilot and aircraft commander, said that his flight into Ian Sept. 28 was the “roughest of his career” due to the severe updrafts and downdraft, hail and lightening experienced during his third and fourth pass through the eye wall. Even faced with those severe conditions, he said he does this job of collecting vital weather data, information satellites can’t collect, because he finds it rewarding to help people, potentially saving lives.
The Atlantic Ocean is a data sparse environment due to the lack of radar and weather balloons, so Hurricane Hunters crews, which consists of two pilots, an aerial reconnaissance weather officer, navigator and loadmaster, usually fly through the eye of a storm at about 10,000 feet four to six times to collect real time information in the storm, said Capt. Garrett Black, who was the ARWO on Dunn’s crew. Black directed the crew to the true center of the storm. During each pass through the eye, crews release a dropsonde, a tube-like meteorological instrument that collects temperature, wind speed, wind direction, humidity, and barometric pressure data as it descends to the ocean surface.
"The NHC has many different resources available to them for use in their forecasts. However, there are still many missing pieces that we’re able to provide about what is happening real time in the storm environment such as wind speed, surface winds and central pressure, which is very important for the NHC forecasters,” said Black, adding that the information they collect is transmitted continuously throughout the flight to the NHC.
“This flight was unusually bad, even for a hurricane,” said Black. “It was a very rough flight. It wasn’t even calm in the eye. Sometimes with the storm going through these rapid intensifications, the eye itself is not very calm and that’s what we experienced.”
When the crew stepped out to the aircraft that morning, Ian was a category three. It strengthened to a category four storm during the flight.
“On one of the final passes we went through, that data was very critical to forecasters to see that the storm was intensifying,” said Black. “With our capability of being able to go through the eyewall like that and deploy the dropsondes to measure those strong winds, it gave those forecasters the ability to upgrade the hurricane and to understand how much it was strengthening.”
For people living in the path of the storm, the role the Hurricane Hunters play is crucial in the creation of watches and warnings, an important role in the emergency management system, said Black.
“We just want to be able to help how we can and where we can,” said Black.