Air Force hurricane chasers look for storms in North Pacific

Posted: Sunday, February 23, 2003

OVER THE NORTH PACIFIC OCEAN (AP) -- At 30,000 feet the temperature outside the airplane is 118 below and the four turboprops drone a deafening single note. In the back of the nearly 40-year-old U.S. Air Force WC-130H Hercules, a technician loads a tube with an instrumented cylinder. He moves back to his seat at an instrument console and clicks a mouse. With a hiss and a sproing, the cylinder is ejected overboard. A stream of numbers on a readout show the sensor is doing its job.

The crew of the Air Force Reserve Command's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron from Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., are known as the Hurricane Hunters. In contrast to the highly publicized hurricane fly-throughs the squadron has conducted for more than half a century, the 53rd has been flying little-known winter storm missions from Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, since 1996. The squadron has been collecting data in support of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) in Camp Springs, Md.

The Hurricane Hunters have flown 11 missions from Elmendorf in the past month. Some of the flights last more than 12 hours, during which the crew ejects hundreds of ''drop sondes'' that send data back to the airplane. The $500 sondes, shaped like a tennis ball can, are ejected from a spring-loaded launcher in the rear of the plane.

''The sonde falls at 2,500 feet per minute and transmits atmospheric pressure, temperature, wind speed and direction and is made of mostly biodegradable parts,'' said Staff Sgt. Matt Couch, a drop sonde operator. During a nearly 11-hour, 3,001-mile mission on a recent Thursday, Couch and another operator launched 26 drop sondes.

The drop sonde data is sent to the NCEP to back up computer climate models that forecast storms and precipitation for the entire United States and trans-Pacific air routes.

The 53rd receives its orders from the NCEP.

''They send us out to the areas where the 1/8mathematical 3/8 models show the greatest uncertainty,'' said Lt. Col. Valerie Hendry, a flight meteorologist.

For this mission, the Hurricane Hunters were joined in the air by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Gulfstream IV out of Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. The NOAA Gulfstream flew to 40 degrees north latitude, about the latitude of the border between Oregon and California, while the Hurricane Hunters flew south to the same latitude before heading back to Alaska.

While satellites provide excellent early warning of storm systems, they don't provide the data needed for current weather models. The measurements from the airplanes provide detailed information not available from any other source.

''During these winter storm missions, we fly into weather that hasn't been looked at since it left Japan,'' Hendry said.

The Hurricane Hunters trade missions with the NOAA crew every year, and will fly the same mission from Hawaii next year while the Gulfstream flies from Alaska.

These missions are not as dramatic as flying into a class 5 hurricane, where the Hercules can hit 5,000-foot-per-minute downdrafts, St. Elmo's fire plays across the cockpit windows, and ball lightning runs down the airplane's backbone. Still, the North Pacific winter storm missions have direct economic impact on fuel oil consumption forecasts and transportation businesses.

Arriving back at Keesler, the Hurricane Hunters will fly into winter storms along the northeastern coast of the United States. The squadron also flies six new WC-130Js, each costing $68 million. The J models are ready to fly the Pacific storm mission next year and the squadron is working to certify the aircraft to fly into hurricanes by 2005.

The hurricane season runs from June through November.

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