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Hurricane Hunters take part in Royal International Air Tattoo

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Marnee A.C. Losurdo
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

A 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron WC-130J Super Hercules joined aircraft from around the world for the Royal International Air Tattoo July 14-16 at Royal Air Force Fairford in Gloucestershire, England.

An Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft was on display with 253 aircraft from more than 20 nations at the world’s largest military air show attended by approximately 200,000 spectators.

Lt. Col. John Gharbi, 53rd WRS navigator, was one of five aircrew and two crew chiefs at the show.

“We have a very niche mission so going to another part of the world was a great opportunity for us to increase awareness of what we do and educate people who never would have got the chance to meet the aircrew who flies the WC-130J into tropical storms and hurricanes,” said Gharbi.

They also provided tours to the Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall III, Commander of the Air Force Reserve Gen. John Healy, and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass.

Gharbi is one of 120 reservists in the 53rd WRS assigned to the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. As the only Department of Defense unit that annually flies weather reconnaissance missions into severe tropical weather June 1 to Nov. 30, these Citizen Airmen must be ready to go within 16 hours of being tasked to fly a storm. The information they gather is sent to the National Hurricane Center, which improves their forecasts and storm warnings. 

The 53rd WRS's operations area is immense, ranging from the mid-Atlantic to Hawaii. While the squadron is aligned under Air Force Reserve Command weather reconnaissance taskings originate at the NHC, part of the Department of Commerce. Through an interagency agreement, tropical weather reconnaissance is governed by the National Hurricane Operations Plan, which requires the squadron to support 24-hour-a-day continuous operations, with the ability to fly up to three storms simultaneously.

“While satellites provide a lot of information, they cannot offer a full picture of the storm (hurricane) at hand,” said Lt. Col. Tobi Baker, 53rd WRS aerial reconnaissance weather officer who was at RIAT. “Via the WC-130J aircraft, we can get inside the hurricane and collect data at its source. This raw weather data includes weather variables like pressure, temperature, and wind speeds from the ocean surface up to our flight level of 10,000 feet; along with finding the center of the storm to better track its movement and speed. This data is extremely vital to the National Hurricane Center in order to disseminate accurate and timely advisories, watches, and warnings to both the United States and other nations that can be affected by hurricanes.” 

To provide this quick reaction aircrew and aircraft maintenance force, the 53rd WRS has 10 full-time Reserve aircrews and 10 traditional Reserve part-time crews available to fly the 10 WC-130J aircraft designated to accomplish the mission, said Gharbi. The WC-130J, the newest version of the C-130. The WC-130J has two additional external fuel tanks to provide longer range, a radiometer pod on the left wing, and two addition crew pallets in the cargo bay for the aerial reconnaissance weather officer and dropsonde operator.

As a Gulf Coast resident, Gharbi said he understands the destructive power of hurricanes personally. He was part of the crew that flew into Hurricane Ida in 2021, a Category 4 storm that caused catastrophic damage as it made landfall in Louisiana, which was close to home, he said.

“Our mission is so important,” he said. “We all use NHC forecasts to make live-saving decisions, so Ida was personal to me, because my friends and family were relying on us to provide the data for those models, forecasts and warnings. So, participating in this event was a great experience to explain the importance of this unique mission set.”