As Hurricane Frances bears down on Florida and the coastal
residents evacuate, Air Force reservists are flying directly into
the storm that everyone else wants to avoid.
Called "Hurricane Hunters," members of Air Force Reserve
Command's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Keesler Air Force
Base, Miss., have been flying into Hurricane Frances since Aug.
"Our mission is to collect weather data from the surface to
10,000 feet through the center of one of Mother Nature's fiercest
phenomena," said Maj. Chad Gibson, a flight meteorologist. "The
information we collect is sent from the plane to the National
Hurricane Center via satellite where forecasters use the data to
increase forecast accuracy by 25 to 30 percent."
As of 8 a.m., Sept. 2, Hurricane Frances was moving west,
northwest toward the Bahamas, according to National Hurricane
Center officials. Center workers deemed Frances to be a Category 4
hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale based on reports from the
reservists that the storm's maximum sustained winds are near 145
mph with higher gusts.
Since Frances became a full-fledged hurricane, the Air Force
Reserve's WC-130H aircraft fly nearly around-the-clock missions out
of Keesler AFB and St. Croix, Virgin Islands.
Hurricane season for the eastern part of the United States runs
from the beginning of June until the end of November. Hurricanes
are tropical cyclones that have sustained winds of 74 mph or more.
Below this speed, this tropical cyclone is called a tropical storm,
and if the winds are less than 39 mph, it is known as a tropical
As of Sept. 2, Frances' hurricane force winds extended up to 80
miles from the center of the storm with tropical storm force winds
going out to 185 miles. The storm caused surge flooding of 6 to 14
feet above the normal tide levels along with battering waves
striking Eleuthera Island and Grand Bahama Island. Rainfall amounts
of 5 to 10 inches and higher were expected with Frances' arrival,
according to the National Weather Service reports.
Packed with sophisticated sensors and weather measuring devices,
the tough and battle-proven WC-130H aircraft launch every six hours
for missions that typically last eight to 12 hours.
"When one plane comes
back, another one goes out," said Tech. Sgt. James Pritchett, a
spokesman for the 403rd Wing at Keesler AFB.
A typical mission profile includes flying into the building
storm at about 1,000 feet above the ocean's surface. During the
missions, the aircraft crisscross the hurricane and release small
"dropsonde" canisters. Dropped by parachute, these free-floating
sensors provide the most accurate measurements of the storm's
location and intensity. The canisters send details about barometric
pressure, wind speed and direction to the aircraft during their
descent until they hit the water.
Squadron Airmen typically devote about 1,100 flying hours
tracking weather systems between June and November. Consisting of
an aircraft commander, co-pilot, flight engineer, navigator,
weather officer and dropsonde operator, the crews fly through rough
turbulence and heavy rains during the missions. The heaviest
turbulence occurs in the "eye wall," the circular area directly
around the hurricane's eye.
After checking the data collected, the crews forward the
information they collect directly to the National Hurricane
Six-person crews from the squadron began their first mission of
the season July 31. At that time, the first storm of the hurricane
season, named Alex, was a tropical depression east of the