Hurricane Hunters Prepare for Busy Season - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

05/24/07

Hurricane Hunters Prepare for Busy Season

They get a bird's eye view of a hurricane before it hits land. But the Hurricane Hunters from Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi aren't just watching a storm, they are gathering important details which could save lives.

They ride in the "Spirit of Gulfport." It's a C-130-J, an important weapon when it comes to tracking Hurricanes. There are ten here at Keesler Air Force base, enough for Keesler's Hunters to fly 3 storms at once.

It takes five people to fly a mission, and each one carries out a specific and vital job.

Lt. Colonel Jon Talbot is a Weather Reconnaissance Officer with the 403rd, which basically means he is a flying meteorologist.

"This is an exciting job for a weather guy, because we get to see the other side of the table," says Lt Col Talbot. "You know, instead of sitting down making a forecast, we get to come experience it."

Sitting beside Lt. Col. Talbot in the belly of the plane, is Tech Sgt. Darryl Bickham.

"My job as a load master is to load and unload cargo," says Sgt Bickham. "Plus, I'm responsible for passengers if we have any, and the weight and balance of the plane pre-flight and assist the pilots whenever they need help on anything."

Captain Sean Cross and Major Darryl Woods are the pilots. Between them they've flown storms for 13 years. Both tracked Katrina, and both agree, the journey to the eye of a storm can be a bumpy ride.

"Think of the worst turbulence you've ever flown in and then multiply that probably by 4 or 5," says Captain Cross. "And if you were sitting in the back of the airliner, I guarantee your tray table and your drink and food would probably be on the top of the plane."

Captain. Cross says each storm has a personality of its own, so you have to be prepared for anything. Major Woods says that doesn't make him nervous.

"I'm not afraid of hurricanes, says Major Woods. "But I have a healthy respect for the weather we're about to fly through. I mean, you definitely think about it."

Lt Colonel Talbot offers up an inside look at the complicated system inside the plane.

"Basically this airplane is a flying computer," says Lt Col Talbot. "There is our main data screen where all our data that's collected about once every second comes into the airplane. I coordinate with the guy over there, our dropsonde operator, to drop instruments, not only when we go through the eye, but in the eye wall. This is what we call a dropsonde, sonde for short. It has a GPS transmitter in it, and it also has sensors in it that we get data from."

Data like pressure, temperature, and wind speed, which goes directly to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. That information helps save lives.

"That's why I like to do it, we know we're actually making a difference during storm season," says Lt. Colonel Talbot. "We know we're actually helping people because the accuracy in forecasts is increased by 30 percent"

And this season, Hurricane Hunters will be armed with new technology that will give them even more accurate information about the storms they're tracking.

"This is going to be an exciting piece of new equipment," explains Lt Colonel Talbot. "It's called a microwave radiometer, a step frequency."

Mounted on the plane's wing, it uses microwaves to constantly measure how fast the wind is blowing at the surface, 10,000 feet below the plane. That could make a big difference in intensity forecasting of hurricanes and make a big difference to the folks that have to provide the warnings to the public.

Hurricane Hunters don't just fly into hurricanes. From December to April, crews fly into winter storms.

The 53rd squadron is also responsible for transporting wounded soldiers and military cargo.

They'll even be helping out with the upcoming presidential race by carrying limousines and secret service.

Reported By: Andrew Davis adavis@wtoc.com

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