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Hurricane Hunters war on weather

  • Published
  • By Maj. Marnee A.C. Losurdo
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs
At 1:15 a.m. June 15, Lt. Col. Jeff Ragusa shuts off his alarm, rolls out of bed and gets ready quietly and leaves for work. The pilot and aircraft commander meets his crew at 2:15 a.m. to prepare for a 4:30 a.m. departure to fly a low-level investigation mission at 500 feet above the Gulf of Mexico into a tropical disturbance known as 91L, which eventually becomes Tropical Storm Bill.

As Ragusa and his crew depart, Maj. Steven Burton, a navigator, repeats the same ritual on the other side of the globe to make it to work at 5:45 a.m., meets with his fellow crew members, and prepares for a 7:45 a.m. departure to fly a mission at 10,000 feet into Tropical Storm Carlos in the Pacific.

Ragusa and Burton are two of 120 reservists in the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron 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. 

"As a member of this squadron, you realize that you are going to live out of a suitcase from the first of June, or in the case of this year, the middle of May with Tropical Storm Ana, until the end of the season Nov. 30," said Ragusa, who was enjoying the day with his family when he got the call June 14 notifying him he was tasked to fly 91L. "That could have easily been, 'We have a mission departing for St. Croix for a week at 0100 tomorrow morning.' In order to get the required amount of sleep and attend to your family and all, you need to be packed and ready to go."

While this is just one weather mission for Ragusa and Burton, this ritual is expected to be repeated numerous times by squadron members during a busy hurricane season.

War on Weather
The unit's "war on weather" is unique for several reasons, said Col. Frank L. Amodeo, 403rd Wing commander. He is responsible for the 53rd WRS, which is one of three special missions in the Air Force Reserve; the other two are the aerial spray conducted by the 910th Airlift Wing, Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Ohio, and the Modular Airborne Firefighting System mission operated by the 302nd Airlift Wing, Peterson AFB, Colorado.

Unlike a tactical C-130 unit tasked under the Air Expeditionary Force, referred to as an AEF, and notified of an upcoming deployment to an Area of Responsibility months or years in advance, the 53rd WRS deploys from home station normally within the same timeframe each year.

"We ask people to deploy for shorter lengths of time but on a much more frequent basis," said Amodeo.

"It's almost like having mini deployments numerous times throughout the year," said Lt. Col. Matthew Muha, 53rd WRS commander and a navigator with 20 years of experience in tactical C-130 units in the Air Force and AF Reserve.

This Reserve unit provides operational capability to the joint services commanders of U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Pacific Command under the umbrella of the Defense Support of Civil Authorities, or DSCA. Where most Reserve units train for deployments every two to three years, the AF Reserve weather reconnaissance mission occurs yearly, flying both winter and tropical storms. Flying tropical storms improves storm track models by 25 percent or more, said Amodeo. This DSCA mission saves hundreds of millions of dollars by reducing the miles of U.S. coastline that don't have to be evacuated, he added.

The Area of Operation
When deployed, a tactical C-130 unit delivers needed supplies and personnel throughout a limited theater of operation. The 53rd WRS's operations area is immense, ranging from the mid-Atlantic to Hawaii. Other C-130 units receive their taskings from the geographic combatant commander they support or the Air Force Reserve Command for training missions. The 53rd WRS is unique, said Amodeo.

While the squadron is aligned under AFRC, weather reconnaissance taskings originate at the National Hurricane Center, which falls, not under the Department of Defense, but 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 with response times of 16 hours. Forwarding requirements from the NHC to the 53rd WRS is the responsibility of the Chief, Aerial Reconnaissance Coordination All Hurricanes, or CARCAH. This three-man team, assigned to the 53rd WRS, works in Coral Gables, Florida, at the NHC and coordinates all the reconnaissance flight requirements.

To provide this quick reaction aircrew and aircraft maintenance force, the 403d Wing at Keesler AFB 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 Muha.

Hurricane Hunter crews are occasionally stretched to the limit with the requirement to support operations from two forward operating locations and home station, said Amodeo. As of Sept. 1 they have been deployed to the Atlantic and Pacific simultaneously three times.

"Reserve wings provide operational capability, strategic depth and surge capacity to the greater Air Force, and ultimately the warfighter. In the case of the 53rd WRS and their unique DSCA mission, the war is on two or three fronts and the fight is Tropical Storm 'XXX' in the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane 'YYY' in the Caribbean, and Tropical Storm 'ZZZ' heading for Hawaii," said Amodeo. "Furthermore, unlike other C-130 units, the 53rd WRS does not have the ability to request support from another C-130 unit and 'rainbow' aircrews; WC-130J weather reconnaissance aircrews fly unique aircraft and have unique skill sets, qualifications and certifications."

The Right Stuff
It can be a challenge to assemble crews and the right crew mix for short notice taskings, said Ragusa, who served in the active Air Force for eight years before joining the AF Reserve. He's been an Air Reserve Technician, or full-time reservist, since 2006 flying with the 53rd WRS and the wing's tactical airlift unit, the 815th Airlift Squadron.

As with any mission, but particularly with operational missions, the crew makeup is important.  Leadership throughout the wing demands good Operational Risk Management and good Crew Resource Management, said Amodeo. These two important considerations are used to mitigate many of the risks associated with long and dynamic missions over a vast geographic area.

"Hurricane Hunter missions can be up to 12 hours long and operate around the clock, often outside the normal work-rest cycle," he added. 

"Our schedulers and leadership here do not have the captive audience that typical AEF schedulers or leadership would have in a deployed environment," said Ragusa.
To solve the challenge of scheduling Reserve aircrews for storm missions, the squadron asks traditional reservists and fulltime Air Reserve Technicians [ARTs] to sign-up for a two-week blocks of time to be on call during the historical peak times of the tropical storm season, said Muha.
Many people who serve in the AF Reserve have active-duty experience, such as Amodeo, Muha, Ragusa and Burton. Ragusa and Burton, both ARTs, said they joined the AF Reserve to provide stability for their family. Although, they live out of a suitcase 180 days of the year, both said they prefer being on-call for short-notice taskings versus being away from their families for six months.

The ART of the Mission
Like other units in the AF Reserve, the 403rd Wing training management is handled by a cadre of ARTs. The 53rd WRS, due to its unique training mission with annual operational requirements, has more ARTs than a typical Reserve flying unit, said Muha.

There are benefits to the Federal Civil Service ART program, one of which is the unit member can become very proficient at the job, Ragusa said.

"You have a great deal of experience from the traditional reservists and the ARTs because we can stay in a particular mission so long," he said. "As an ART, as you can see from my experience, I've been flying this airplane, at this base, in this environment for 12 years. You'd be hard-pressed to find an active-duty peer who could say the same thing."

Lt. Col. Jon Talbot, senior meteorologist with the 53rd WRS, noted another benefit of the ART program. 

"I can serve longer as an ART, at least to my minimum civil service retirement age," said Talbot. "You can hold on to experience longer with the ART program."
But, there are also some challenges that come along with being an ART, most of which deal with orders and travel vouchers. An aircrew member, for example, can fly in three different pay statuses or more, whereas an active duty member will be in the same pay status, said Ragusa.

"The federal civilian pay system isn't really designed to handle flying crewmembers," said Ragusa. "It doesn't affect the mission at all, but it does affect the paperwork before and after the mission, so it adds that little bit of personal stress to figure out how you are going to make your timecard work."

Training for the Future
According to Talbot, another unique aspect of the hurricane hunting mission deals with training.

As one of 20 aerial weather reconnaissance officers in the entire Air Force, all of whom serve at the 53rd WRS, Talbot said that due to this rare mission the ARWO training is done in-house.

In fact, the majority of the squadron's training for pilots, navigators, ARWO's and loadmasters is all conducted at home station and during operational missions, said Muha. There is no formal schoolhouse.

"That is unique to this mission," said Muha, who explained tactical C-130 units spend a lot of their time, after the formal schoolhouse initial qualification, training at home station to be prepared for their AEF. In the case of 53rd WRS crews, "We need actual storms to fly for training. We are constantly going into the storm."

Why they Weather the Storm
The data the Hurricane Hunters provide to NHC is vital, potentially saving lives and property, said Talbot. The Pacific and Atlantic Oceans are data sparse environments due to the lack of radar and weather balloons in those areas and satellite data can be incomplete.

"Other observation systems can't give you the whole story," said Talbot. "From satellites, you can see a hurricane and the eye of the hurricane; however, the satellite can't tell you the exact center, wind speeds on the surface and what the central pressure is. The only way to get the ground truth data is to fly an aircraft into the storm and directly measure the surface winds and pressure, which is very important for the computer models that forecast movement and intensity."

To assist the NHC, the Hurricane Hunters flew four missions into 91L this season, which formed near Honduras June 13 and moved into the Gulf of Mexico two days later. Based on information the Hurricane Hunters provided, the system was named Tropical Storm Bill June 15. Bill was the second Atlantic storm to make landfall this season, impacting the Texas coastline between Houston and Austin June 16. Bill and its remnants brought rainfall to many states from Texas and Oklahoma to the Northeast Coast.

During that same timeframe, the unit flew two storm missions to gather information on Hurricane Carlos, which formed as Tropical Depression Three-E June 10 in the Pacific. It strengthened into a tropical storm June 11, became a Category 1 hurricane June 13, and varied between a tropical storm and hurricane from June 14-17, until it was downgraded to a tropical depression June 17. Because it was a small storm, the impacts were low on the Mexican coast, said Burton.

Bill and Carlos were the third and fourth named storms the squadron flew this season. Since then, the squadron has been simultaneously tasked to fly missions in the Atlantic and Pacific three times. The Hurricane Hunters have flown two hurricanes and two tropical storms in the Atlantic and five hurricanes and one tropical storm in the Pacific. Predictions earlier this year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center indicated a 70 percent likelihood of six to 11 named storms in the Atlantic, of which between three and six could become hurricanes. In the Pacific, NOAA called for a 70 percent chance of 15 to 22 named storms, of which seven to 12 are expected to become hurricanes.

Whatever Mother Nature brings for the rest of this season, Citizen Airmen of the Hurricane Hunters, operating in their annual Air Expeditionary Force model, are prepared to respond at a moment's notice to provide data for NHC forecasts, which plays a critical role in alerting coastal residents about potential hazards, said Burton.