As the Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, better known as the “Hurricane Hunters,” wrap up their mission flying through Hurricane Isaac, one of the unit’s pilots provided an insight into who they are and some facts and figures about how they perform during their dangerous missions.
Lt. Col. Jeff Ragusa is based with the unit out of Keesler Air Force Base, in Biloxi, Miss., and posted a series of quick facts about the unit on Facebook.
The unit flies with 10 WC-130J aircraft equipped with palletized meteorological data-gathering instruments and can put together as many as 20 aircrews. Ragusa and his crew are currently flying out of Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base, Texas, as Keesler is in the path of Hurricane Isaac. He pointed out a few facts that aren’t commonly known about the unit and its mission:
- While commercial airliners often fly at 40,000 feet, we never fly storms above 10,000 feet. Hurricanes can extend up to 60,000 feet.
- We only fly storms over water. When the storm hits land, our mission is complete.
- Our missions can last as long as 14 hours and use as much as 60,000 lbs. of fuel.
- We have a minimum crew of five: pilot, co-pilot, navigator, weather officer and loadmaster/dropsonde operator.
- There are only 12 planes in the world allowed to fly into hurricanes and we have 10 of them. The other two are flown by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
- We can fly a storm 24 hours a day. It takes at least three planes and crews.
- We fly as low as 500 feet during the infancy of a storm.
- Hurricane Katrina, on a similar path as Isaac, devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where Keesler is located on Sept. 29, 2005. Many of the Hurricane Hunters, who are all Air Force Reservists, live near the base.
- Despite great personal losses, the unit never missed a tasking from the National Hurricane Center.
- Data and observations gathered by the Hurricane Hunters helps make the forecasts by the NHC 30 percent more accurate allowing local officials to make critical decisions about safety and property.
The Hurricane Hunters organization actually goes back to 1943, when on a barroom dare, two Army Air Corps pilots flew a propeller-driven, single engine AT-6 “Texan” trainer into the eye of a hurricane. Maj. Joe Duckworth actually flew into the hurricane twice that day – once with a navigator and later with a weather officer. His efforts paved the way for the unit’s activation a year later at Gander, Newfoundland with the mission to fly weather tracks between North American and allied Western Europe. Since then, the unit has been headquartered in New Hampshire, Florida, Bermuda, England, Saudi Arabia, Georgia, and Puerto Rico before settling at its current location.