An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Winter operations begin for 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Kristen Pittman
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

Before the hurricane season had even ended, the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron experienced their first taste of winter operations.

While they’re known for their mission supporting the National Hurricane Operations Plan which involves flying into – not around, not over – severe tropical systems to collect atmospheric data from June through November, the Air Force Reserve’s “Hurricane Hunter” unit does not hibernate for the winter.

From Nov. 1 to April 30, the squadron supports the National Winter Season Operations Plan, flying atmospheric river and winter storm atmospheric data collection missions off the West and East Coasts, providing valuable data to forecasters and researchers to improve forecasts and longer-term projections.

“Our winter operations began about two weeks ago when we went out to Alaska for our annual buoy drop missions over the Pacific,” said Capt. Jennie White, a 53rd WRS aerial reconnaissance weather officer. “We completed our buoy drop missions in partnership with the U.S. Navy and were also tasked to fly our first AR mission of the season as well.”

Atmospheric rivers are large areas of moisture that primarily impact the West Coast via precipitation, which, in arid climates can turn catastrophic quickly. In order to gather pertinent data needed as these systems make their way over the Pacific, said White, the 53rd flies a specially modified WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft from 25,000 to 30,000 ft., and sends dropsondes that measure temperature, pressure, wind speed and humidity to gather a robust vertical profile of the system.

By receiving the data collected via the buoys, which are placed in data-sparse regions, and aerial reconnaissance missions, researchers and forecasters can better understand and forecast these systems that impact millions every year.

The AR reconnaissance program is led by the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes (CW3E) at the University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and represents a research and operations partnership between science and operational weather forecasting. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aircraft Operations Center also contributes to the program via their Gulfstream IV aircraft.

While the 53rd typically forward deploys west from mid-January to March or April, they operate in an on-call status from Nov. 1 until they deploy. A crew recently departed Keesler Air Force Base to begin flying a system from Mather Airport in California Dec. 2.

As the ARs continue to gain more attention from impacted citizens, forecasters, and scientists, the scope of the AR recon program continues to grow, and the latest example of that growth is an expanded area of responsibility for the 53rd WRS.

“In early January we will be conducting missions from Guam for two weeks,” said Lt. Col. Mark Withee, 53rd WRS navigator. “The intent is to reach these systems at their genesis in order to have a more data-driven understanding of the development and life cycle of atmospheric rivers.”

The AR recon program is just one facet of the unit’s winter operations, though.

“We also provide reconnaissance for winter storms,” said White. “We fly certain patterns in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic to provide a profile of the atmosphere that storms moving east will be rolling into. This helps better forecast nor’easters, which often impact heavily populated areas.”