Into The Storm – The Military’s Hurricane Hunters

Most people have fairly normal work routines.

You get up, get coffee, go to job.  Have boring meeting with boring manager Rob.  Whatever.  There’s a pretty constant flow to work days that you learn to accept as standard.  So it’s not the most exciting thing in the world but hey, work’s not supposed to be that way right?

Apparently not.  Apparently I’ve been lying to myself this whole time. *guzzles coffee at cubicle*

Okay, let me explain.

There are some jobs that are amazing.  The kind of jobs you see as a kid and say, “I wanna be THAT when I get older!”  Those jobs that kids want to pay attention to on career day.  The job you tell yourself you’d “love to do one day” if you were ever given the chance.

Maj. Brad Boudreaux has one of those jobs.

Brad is with the 53rd weather reconnaissance squadron in Biloxi, Mississippi at Keesler AFB.  They call themselves the Hurricane Hunters.

And yeah, that’s exactly what it sounds like.

Just another day at the offi–IS THAT A HURRICANE?!

“Basically what we do is fly into the hurricanes,” Brad says with a southern drawl that seems far too calm considering what he just said, “and [we] collect data for the hurricane center so the forecasters over there can provide accurate and better forecasts for the public to give them earlier warning detection on impending storms.”

They fly into storms.  Like the big, foreboding, “get the kids and go inside it’s going to be a rough one” kind of storms.

Which is whoa-worthy for a number of reasons.

I mean, talk about an exciting work environment.  I see a hurricane and I want to put as much distance between me and it as possible.  Most people do I suppose.  But not the Hurricane Hunters.  Oh no.  No cube farms for these storm chasers.  Excitement is their bread and butter.  Par for the course.  A regular day at the office.

They eat danger for breakfast (okay that’s not true, but you catch my drift).

Okay so let’s talk shop.  What kind of crazy high-tech pseudo-Cylon planes are we flying into the wild cloudy yonder in the name of science?

Surprisingly, the boat itself is nothing new.

“We have special equipment that we put into the C-130 to make it a wC-130, or a weather C-130,” Brad explains.  “Without that equipment we’re still a normal military cargo type aircraft that’s at the disposal of the Air Force or the Air Force Reserve.”

I like to think of this in video game terms. 

But if you wanna use the hurricane augmentation you have to get the expansion pack. That’s how they get ya.

So on normal missions you use the standard plane, but when you have to do a storm mission you switch to the augmented C-130 with booster pack.  And good thing, too, because the people in the weather-turbo versions of these C-130s are helping to make it possible for the population to know what we’re up against when the dark clouds come rolling in.

So how do they do it?  Well, as it is with most things on this blog, it all comes down to science.

“The primary goal of our mission is to collect data and provide this data back to the hurricane center.  The way that we do that is we fly into the storm and we collect the data.  We have equipment on the plane that’s constantly sending data back to the hurricane center so that the forecasters and the people at the hurricane center can take this data and they’re the ones who basically determine and make the forecast for what the storm’s doing and where it’s going.”

Brad jokingly refers to himself as a glorified bus driver, and says it’s the weather center experts that are key in this weather information gathering mission.  “We’re not forecasters.  We’re not going to tell you where the storm’s going.  We’re basically out there to collect the data and pass it onto the data collection center.”

Brad can say it any way he likes.  He flies into hurricanes.  That’s pretty…Well that’s pretty amazing.  And this is a job you can have in the military.  When most people think about joining the military they don’t automatically think storm chaser (Oh?  You do?  Well aren’t you strange).

So what is it like to be a military storm chaser?

“We are a military organization so we do military flights all the time.  Our primary mission is the hurricane hunter mission but we also do other missions that are normal military operations where we fly troops and cargo around,” Brad explains.  “[Our mission is] basically [to serve] the needs of the Air Force and the Air Force reserve.”

Maj. Boudreaux says that the service they provide – flying into the serious business of storms – assists in making the forecasting more accurate.  As much as about 30%, give or take. What that equates to, for people on the ground, is letting them know what they need to avoid and where they can evacuate.  Knowing where the storm is headed and what to expect can save lives.

It also saves time and money to know what you’re up against.

Especially when what you’re up against is massive, uncontrollable and possibly deadly.

“To me the most impressive thing is seeing the forces of nature and flying through these storms,” he says.  “My whole life, going through the aviation program and flying other planes in the military, we were trained to stay away from this stuff. And now basically we’re flying right through it.”

Yeah.  Literally.  And this kind of data collection and information sharing is not quite “par for the scientific course” if you ask me.  Sometimes things can get exciting.

Like flying cow exciting.

Another cow… (Photo from the movie Twister, copyright Amblin Entertainment)

“We had a flight a few weeks ago in one of the hurricanes.  We saw a weather phenomenon in the eye of the storm that most of us had never seen before,” Brad says, again far calmer than I would be.  “It was basically an airborne tornado that we flew through.  It was very violent.”

Yes, I would imagine that tornadoes inside of hurricanes would be violent.  And horrifying.  And the stuff of which nightmares are made.

I swear I’ve seen a horror movie that starts off looking a lot like this…

Brad goes on to tell me that the plane was very strong and held up really well, which tells me that a C-130 is the plane to be in if I ever have the hankering to fly into a tempest.  So this kind of science requires some pretty heavy duty technology I would imagine.

“We are using some of the latest technology that is available, as far as our weather equipment for detecting and collecting data,” he says.  “We have satellite radios that we use to communicate with the national hurricane center.  We have instruments that we drop out of the plane that are almost like mini-computers that as they’re falling through the storm, through the eyewall, they’re constantly sending data back and forth to the airplane; giving us pressure, temperature, wind speeds, and stuff like that.”

With hurricane season wrapping up you’d think these airmen would be able to kick their feet up and take a well-deserved breather, but it turns out that storm chasing is a year-round career.  Winter storm season is upon us, and the Hurricane Hunters of the 53rd weather reconnaissance squadron are gearing up to tackle the cold winds and snowy threats in order to make the world a little safer for the rest of us.

And I think I speak for humanity when I say we’re very grateful.

So what does Maj. Brad Boudreaux have to say about having one of the coolest jobs in the Air Force?  “It makes the roller coasters at the amusement parks a little boring.”

Well, hard to argue with that.

———-

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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