In the Eye of the Storm: DoD Has Its Own Hurricane Hunters

Blog adapted from an article by Air Force Maj. Marnee Losurdo

The military always comes to the rescue of people in need after hurricanes, just as the National Guard and other service members have been doing in the Carolinas since Hurricane Florence hit. But did you know they’re also responsible for helping collect the data that lets us know the storms are coming?

The Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron is known as the Defense Department’s hurricane hunters. It’s the only DoD unit that flies reconnaissance missions into severe tropical weather during the hurricane season.

Their job: gather data for the National Hurricane Center to improve the center’s forecasts and storm warnings.

Ahead of Hurricane Florence, the unit made a trip out to the storm over the Atlantic Ocean before it made landfall in early September. What they gathered was crucial.

Tech. Sgt. Zachary Zieman, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron loadmaster and dropsonde operator, assists the aircrew with the engine startup prior to takeoff for a mission into Tropical Storm Chris July 8, 2018, to gather weather data for the National Hurricane Center for use in their forecasts. Air Force photo by Maj. Marnee A.C. Losurdo


“Oceans are data-sparse environments due to the lack of radar and weather balloons in those areas, and satellite data can be incomplete, so the data the hurricane hunters provide is vital, potentially saving lives and property,” said Air Force Maj. Jeremy DeHart, the 53rd’s aerial reconnaissance weather officer.

A dropsonde used while flying into Hurricane Irma, Sept. 8, 2017. Air Force photo by Staff Kyle Brasier

How They Do It

Crews fly at 5,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level in specially equipped C-130s through the eye of a storm four to six times to find the low-pressure center. During each pass through the center, they release a dropsonde, a canister-sized device that collects weather data such as temperature, surface winds and pressure as the canister falls to the ocean.

The crew’s loadmaster drops about eight to 12 dropsondes during the mission, depending on how many times they fly through the center of the storm. It can take about 10 minutes for the data to be collected and sent back to the National Hurricane Center.

These missions can cover up to 3,500 miles.

It Won’t Work Without Teamwork

The Air Force isn’t the only branch involved in this endeavor. The Navy works to gather data showing the relationship of the ocean temperature and how it can affect storms. The Coast Guard Reserve releases the buoys (known as airborne/air expendable bathythermographs … so we’ll stick with buoys), which collect water temperature and other data.

Chief Master Sgt. Rick Cumbo, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron chief loadmaster, prepares a dropsonde before placing it into a launch tube as part of a research mission, Feb. 11-24, 2016. Air Force photo by Capt. Kimberly Spusta


The outcome of the effort? They’re able to take that data to prepare authorities for how to tell the public to respond. It can reduce damage and save lives of those in the path of the storm.

Hurricanes aren’t the squadron’s only forte. The 53rd has flown missions to gather data on blizzards, too!

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