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Hurricane Hunters fly record breaking storm

Maintenance members with the 403rd Maintenance Group walk out to recover a WC-130J following a weather reconnaissance mission (U.S. Air Force file photo/Maj. Marnee A.C. Losurdo)

Maintenance members with the 403rd Maintenance Group walk out to recover a WC-130J following a weather reconnaissance mission (U.S. Air Force file photo/Maj. Marnee A.C. Losurdo)

Capt. Chase Allen and Capt. Jordan Mentzer pilot through Hurricane Patricia in pitch black conditions October. 23 2015. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Brian Lamar)

Capt. Chase Allen and Capt. Jordan Mentzer pilot through Hurricane Patricia in pitch black conditions October. 23 2015. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Brian Lamar)

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- A 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron "Hurricane Hunter" aircrew flew their WC-130J aircraft off the western central coast of Mexico over the Pacific Ocean to gather storm data from Hurricane Patricia Oct. 22-23.

The data collected by the Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters classified Hurricane Patricia as the strongest storm ever recorded in the NHC's area of operations, which ranges from the 55 longitude line in the Atlantic to the International Dateline in the Pacific, according to John Pavone, a supervisory meteorologist and aircraft coordinator with the Chief, Aerial Reconnaissance Coordination All Hurricanes cell in the National Hurricane Center.

The NHC tasked the 53d WRS Hurricane Hunters Oct. 21 to fly the tropical disturbance, which had developed into a strong Category V by the time the crew took off Thursday at 7 p.m.

"We knew that we were headed into a large and powerful storm, and we were expecting an eventful flight," said Capt. Chase Allen, the aircraft commander and pilot for the mission. "This was definitely the most intense storm I have ever experienced. The storm was intensifying while we were in it, and it caused us to get bumped around a good bit."

During the hurricane, the 53rd WRS aircrew passed through the eye of the storm three times. During each pass through the eye, they released a dropsonde, a meteorological instrument that collects temperature, wind speed, wind direction, humidity, and barometric pressure data as it descended to the ocean surface. The aircraft also collected surface wind speed and flight-level data. This information is transmitted to the NHC every 10 minutes to assist them with their forecasts and storm warnings, which are used not only by the United States, but by governments in the Caribbean and Mexico.

"Our mission was to go in and find the eye and gather the data needed for the NHC," said Lt. Leesa Froelich, a 53rd WRS aerial reconnaissance weather officer for the Patricia mission. "We found that the barometric pressure was 880 millibars and wind speeds were up to 205 mph."

According to the NHC, the members of the 53rd WRS were instrumental in their predictions of the storm, which made landfall Friday evening as a Category 5 storm along the coast of southwestern Mexico near Cuixmala, an area with few population centers.

"Thank you Air Force Hurricane Hunters. Without your data, we would never have known just how strong Patricia was," said Dr. Rick Knabb, director, NHC.

Once the Government of Mexico received the updated warnings, they began an evacuation of nearly 50,000 citizens and tourists in harm's way.

President Enrique Peña Nieto said he believed that previous severe weather situations are the reason the evacuations and preparations went smoothly.

"Each of these episodes that we've experienced has allowed us each time to improve our system of civil protection," said the Mexican president during a press conference following initial landfall of Patricia.

The 53rd WRS is the only Department of Defense organization that flies into tropical storms and hurricanes, a mission that began in 1944. While other C-130 units receive taskings from the geographic combatant commander they support or the Air Force Reserve Command for training missions, the 53rd WRS receives their taskings from the National Hurricane Center, a Department of Commerce agency.

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 and with a response time of 16 hours.

This year, the 53rd WRS has flown 36 missions to collect forecast data with a record number of central pacific storm missions. The Hurricane Hunters will stand ready for any requirements throughout the tropical weather season. The official end to the hurricane season is Nov. 30.

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