NEW ORLEANS (WGNO) — June 1 marks the beginning of the Atlantic hurricane season. Last year, Hurricane Ida’s devastation reminded many just how cruel weather can be.
When broadcast meteorologists are tracking a hurricane on-air, a lot of the information they provide comes from a small crew of people in the air — flying through the most intense parts of the storm.
U.S. Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters play a critical role in tracking storms so meteorologists on the ground can make their forecasts and give life-saving information to the public.
WGNO Meteorologist Brantly Keiek went to Keesler Air Force Base, home for the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, to learn out how the Hurricane Hunters help shape the forecast for a storm.
Lieutenant Colonel Cross has been in the military for 33 years. He’s a veteran Hurricane Hunter pilot and has flown into more than 100 storms.
Not all storms are easy to navigate, he says. Some are more challenging than others.
“There have been a few questionable flights where I asked myself why I was doing this for a living. Obviously, we are doing this for the good of the people. I think all pilots are a little superstitious. In fact, this right here I have been carrying since day one of pilot training. I grew up in New Orleans and my grandmother is from Gretna. This Ziploc bag I’ve been carrying around since the early 90’s. It has a bunch of good luck charms from the Catholic church and mementos. I don’t fly unless this is in my pocket,” said Lieutenant Colonel Cross.
The first storm he would meet would be Hurricane Eric back in 2001. Four years later, he would meet Katrina.
“We knew it was going to explode when it hit the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf of Mexico was a boiling pot,” Cross said.
ln 2018, he met Hurricane Michael, which he says was one of the roughest rides he’s ever experienced.
“We were flying what’s known in aviation as a crab. We were flying sideways. We hit the eyewall. The autopilot couldn’t handle the turbulence because it was so intense. The autopilot disconnected. The left-wing immediately lifted into the air. The aircraft went into a rapid roll.”
To navigate a storm, pilots like Cross need a special set of skills.
A Hurricane Hunter pilot begins with the usual U.S. Air Force pilot training. Eventually, they head to Keesler Air Force Base where in just three flights, pilots must learn how to fly the storm using a WC-130J aircraft.
Also onboard the plane are meteorologists, referred to as “Weather Officers,” who gather the information to track the center of the storm. Lieutenant Colonel Kaitlyn McLaughlin is one of them.
McLaughlin says each slight shift in the eye of a hurricane can lead to big changes in the storm’s forecast and can alter the cone of uncertainty for several miles.
When talking about what weather information they gather in a storm, McLaughlin says, “We are collecting temperature dewpoint, wind speed, wind direction and surface wind speed from the Stepped Frequency Microwave Radiometer. We make 30-second packets and send them out every ten minutes and they are releasable to the public within minutes. You can track us on Google and see our flight path. That information goes directly to the National Hurricane Center and it adjusts the models to help better the forecast.”
A chute on the plane is where sensors tethered to parachutes, known as dropsondes, are deposited.
“We always launch these in the actual eye. It’s probably one of the most important pieces of information that we get. As it drops to the sea surface, the whole time it’s collecting a vertical profile of the atmosphere,” McLaughlin said. “It sends it back through radio frequencies and sends it back to this pallet. Once it gets to the sea surface, it gives the sea level pressure, which is what you report in the news. It gives a good indicator of what is actually happening in the storm out there.“