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Up close and personal with a hurricane

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Raymond Sarracino
  • U.S. Southern Command Public Affairs
I had to ask, "Is it always this bumpy?"

The response from Senior Airman Danielle Ellis, loadmaster aboard this C-130-J Hurricane Hunter spoke volumes about what the crew regularly faces. "This is very mild compared to some of the storms we've flown into," she said.

"Oh," I replied, while coveting a nearby airsickness bag.

This was my first trip aboard a Hurricane Hunter aircraft. Our destination: Hurricane Gustav. And I now have a sincere understanding of the meaning of the word "turbulence."

12-hour missions into the eye of the storm

When tracking hurricanes, time and accuracy are of the essence. This is critical to gauge the severity and track of storms and accurately predict their impact on populated areas.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami relies on a number of methods to gauge the severity of a storm: Satellites, surface sensors and visual observations. However, the most effective method is to get up close and personal with the storm. More often than not this means sending an aircraft and its crew into harm's way to collect this data.

For this mission, the NHC turns to the U.S. Air Force Reserve's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron "Hurricane Hunters."

Based at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., the unit, part of the 403rd Wing, are among the experts who fly into a storm to collect data needed to accurately predict a storm's impact.

Flying the C-130-J "Hercules," the latest model of a veteran airframe that has been in the Air Force inventory since the 1950s. These airmen routinely brave what others carefully avoid.

The 53rd, a unit made up entirely of reservists, both full-time and traditional, deploy to locations in both the Atlantic and Pacific to track severe weather throughout the year.

Ellis, a loadmaster and self-described "weather nerd," who has been with the unit for three and a half years, is emblematic of the esprit de corps within the 53rd: "I love everything about this. I first heard of the unit at a career fair in my hometown of Picayune, La. I knew immediately that this was what I wanted to do," she said.

Loadmaster, the only enlisted position on the aircraft, is responsible for the entire cargo area and its passengers and contents, as well as tracking the aircraft's position for the situational awareness of people outside of the cockpit. The person in this position also launches dropsondes into the storm. Dropsondes are airborne sensors which track critical storm data and transmit the information back to the aircraft.

The entire crew consists of a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, loadmaster and weather officer. Each with its own specific responsibilities during the mission: From safely flying the aircraft through some of the most dangerous conditions in the skies, to tracking and transmitting weather data back to the NHC.

While the mission from Homestead consisted of flying specific routes through the storm, the good news is that it had weakened considerably by landfall, reducing the impact on those in its path. In an eerie coincidence, Hurricane Gustav arrived almost three years to the day after Hurricane Katrina's disastrous impact.

Despite Monday's successful mission into the eye of Gustav, there's no break for the crews of the 53rd - Tropical Storm Hanna, Hurricane Ike and Tropical Storm Josephine are spinning their way to the Americas and they'll no doubt be sent to investigate those storms as well.