A Special Look at the Hurricane Hunters

By Tom Ross

If I could predict the location of where tropical storms/hurricanes would hit the United States a month in advance, I could retire on Easy Street and run the best forecasting operation in the world. However, we really aren’t there yet and quite frankly I’m not sure we ever will be.

However, the important thing to remember with Hurricanes is this: it’s not very important to predict the number of named storms each year. The whole story with hurricanes is location, location, location. Where are they going to strike? All it takes is one category 3 hurricane striking a populated area along our eastern seaboard and we have a multi-billion dollar disaster on our hands. Since the US coastline is in a favored path of these storms each year, it’s only a question of time until a major hurricane will strike the coast again.

People have been flying into hurricanes and typhoons ever since 1943, when Colonel Joe Duckworth flew a single-engine AT-6 trainer aircraft into a Category 1 Surprise Hurricane off the coast of Texas. Hurricane hunting became safer with the introduction of sturdier four-engine planes, but flying through the eyewall of any hurricane remains a dangerous occupation — one that has claimed six hurricane or typhoon hunter planes, with loss of 53 lives. Five of these flights were into Pacific typhoons, and one into an Atlantic hurricane.

This month we deviate a bit from our regular report and look more in depth at what the Hurricane Hunters do. The primary mission of “Hurricane Hunters,” the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (53rd WRS), is to conduct tropical storm reconnaissance. The 53rd WRS is aligned under the 403rd Reserve Wing located at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi. Although the airplanes and people are Department of Defense assets, the unit’s “primary tasking” command is the Department of Commerce. Although it’s a strange setup it has worked well. Tropical reconnaissance is governed by the National Hurricane Operations Plan, which specifies that the 53rd WRS will support 24-hour-a-day continuous operations and have the ability to fly in up to 3 storms at a time with a response time of 16 hours. I am sure you’re now thinking “3 storms a day, that would never happen!” Well, the Area of Operation is not just the Caribbean and the Atlantic; it actually extends from the Mid-Atlantic (55W Longitude) to the International Dateline in the Pacific.

The impact of hurricane hunter data is significant — up to 30% more predictive accuracy, according to the National Hurricane Center. That 30% metric sounds great, but what does it really mean to the public and the government? Without recon data, the forecast would have a much larger margin of error; and considering the estimated cost to evacuate one U.S. coastal mile at one million dollars, the savings can be enormous.

Indirectly, the Hurricane Hunter’s data save lives as well. Since people believe the forecast, they heed warnings and evacuate the affected areas. Without the only operational hurricane reconnaissance unit in the world flying into storm every season, the negative impact on forecast accuracy could be devastating. For more in-depth information on what these folks really do during a mission visit hurricanehunters.com/mission.

Meteorologist Tom Ross managed the Climate Database Modernization Program at the National Climatic Data Center.

Leave a Reply