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No off season: Hurricane Hunters fly winter storms too

U.S. Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Jerry Rutland, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron pilot, flies a WC-130J into the early morning sunrise as they approach Hurricane Florence Sept. 12, 2018. The U.S. Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters are conducting a reconnaissance mission to provide critical and timely weather data for the National Hurricane Center to assist in providing up-to-date and accurate information for storm forecasts. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Chris Hibben)

There is no off-season for the U.S. Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters stationed at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. Threatening weather does not stop once hurricane season ends, and it becomes the mission of the 403rd Wing's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron to remain prepared to fly in order to collect data from winter storms to improve forecasts. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Chris Hibben)

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --

The United States Air Force Reserve 403rd Wing’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, more affectionately known as the Hurricane Hunters, is most well-known for doing the unfathomable—flying at 10,000 feet, sometimes less, through major tropical systems, storms and hurricanes to collect useful data. These storms generally occur during the hurricane season which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30 every year.

Despite being dubbed the Hurricane Hunters, there is no off-season for the 20-crew, 10-aircraft squadron. Threatening weather does not stop once hurricane season ends, and it becomes the mission of the 53rd WRS to remain prepared to fly in order to collect data from winter storms.

Like during a hurricane mission, the Hurricane Hunters fly their uniquely equipped WC-130J Hercules aircraft to release dropsondes periodically throughout the flight, said Maj. Douglas Gautrau, 53rd WRS aerial reconnaissance weather officer.

Gautrau said these dropsondes collect information such as wind speed and direction, pressure, and dew point and transmit that data back to the aerial reconnaissance weather officer aboard the plane who reviews the information to ensure the device operated properly.

Unlike during a hurricane mission, however, the Reserve Citizen Airmen crews fly the aircraft ahead of the storm and at an altitude of 30,000 feet due to the icy environment below. In addition to avoiding hazardous situations wintry conditions can cause, the altitude also allows the dropsonde to cover the entirety of the atmosphere the winter storm is likely to engage with.

Instead of sending the collected data to the National Hurricane Center, information gathered during a winter storm goes straight from the aircraft to the National Centers for Environmental Prediction which, like the NHC, is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The NCEP uses the data a lot like the NHC does during hurricane season, as a supplement to data already collected from other means to better predict the trajectory and severity of a storm and therefore to better inform and prepare those in its path.

“By being able to allow the forecasters to get a better idea on when and how much precipitation is going to fall they can prepare their snow removal vehicles and power trucks to better locations to ensure efficient response times,” said Gautrau.

In addition to flying winter storms during the hurricane off-season, the Hurricane Hunters have, in the past few years, started flying missions in the Pacific Ocean to collect information on atmospheric rivers, said Maj. Jonathan Brady, an aerial weather reconnaissance officer with the 53rd WRS.

“Atmospheric rivers are plumes of moisture that occur in the Pacific between Hawaii to California and can impact flooding and landslide events in California,” said Brady.

A relatively new type of tasking, Brady said the squadron plans to add more of these to their agenda in the future.

So far, the 2018-2019 winter storm season has been a quiet one with no missions for the 53rd WRS to fly, and the time has not come to begin atmospheric river operations, but the Hurricane Hunters remain ready should nature call.