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Hurricane Hunters spread thin heading into Atlantic Hurricane Season

The view from the cockpit during a Hurricane Hunter training flight over the Gulf of Mexcio out of Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., on May 28, 2024.
Emily Kask
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for NPR
The view from the cockpit during a Hurricane Hunter training flight over the Gulf of Mexcio out of Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., on May 28, 2024.

BILOXI, Miss. -- The Atlantic Hurricane Season is here, and forecasters are predicting it will be one of the most active on record because of climate conditions and abnormally warm ocean temperatures.

“There goes my summer,” says First Lt. Zach McDermott, a pilot with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, part of the 403rd Wing, Air Force Reserve Command at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss.

The squad is known as the Hurricane Hunters, and they’re bracing for a busy tropical season. On a late May afternoon, 6 airmen are gathered around a conference table at their headquarters, looking over conditions for the day ahead of a training flight.

Hurricane Hunter airmen prepare before a weather reconnaissance training flight at Keesler Air Force Base.
Emily Kask / for NPR
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Hurricane Hunter airmen prepare before a weather reconnaissance training flight at Keesler Air Force Base.

“I was thinking at some point today we run through the invest checklist [to] get ready since storm season is a week away,” McDermott says during the pre-flight briefing.

This is the only U.S. military unit tasked to collect real-time information for hurricane forecasters. They fly over, around, and through dangerous storms, piercing the eyewall as the propeller aircraft is pelted by hail and at times, winds topping 150 miles-an-hour.

“There's the cliché it’s like a roller coaster in a car wash,” says Lt. Col. Steven Burton, deputy operations commander with the Hurricane Hunters.

Lt. Col. Steven Burton, deputy operations commander, has been with the Hurricane Hunters for 10 years.  He says flying into the eye of a hurricane is like "a roller coaster in a car wash."
Emily Kask / for NPR
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Lt. Col. Steven Burton, deputy operations commander, has been with the Hurricane Hunters for 10 years. He says flying into the eye of a hurricane is like "a roller coaster in a car wash."

"A lot of times it's not that bad, but you get those once every now and then and makes you question your life's choices where it's violently shaking and there's hail hitting the windows and it's loud and the pilots are doing everything they can to maintain control of the airplane," says Burton, who has been with the Hurricane Hunters for about ten years.

The squad’s roots date back to a hurricane in Texas in 1943.

“It was a bar bet,” Burton says. “’I bet you can't go fly that hurricane out there.’”

A pilot took the bet, and the Hurricane Hunters were born.

Hurricane Hunters fly WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft directly into the eyewall of hurricanes, enduring hail and winds topping 150 miles-an-hour.
Emily Kask / for NPR
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Hurricane Hunters fly WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft directly into the eyewall of hurricanes, enduring hail and winds topping 150 miles-an-hour.

Hurricane Hunters fly WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft – basically a military cargo plane fitted with weather data-gathering equipment and the ability to deploy instruments including weather buoys.

On this training flight over the Gulf of Mexico, the crew practices what they would do during a hurricane run, what airmen call a sortie.

The weather officer alerts the cockpit the gear is ready to deploy.

“Hey pilot, weather,” calls 1st Lt. Mark McCoy through the aircraft’s headset communication system. “Still good to drop at 8?”

“You’re clear on the left, clear on the right,” the pilot responds.

Staff Sergeant Donny Arseneaux is the load master who deploys instruments to gather weather data during Hurricane Hunter sorties.
Emily Kask / for NPR
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Staff Sergeant Donny Arseneaux is the load master who deploys instruments to gather weather data during Hurricane Hunter sorties.
Hurricane Hunter aircraft are fitted with specialized weather data-monitoring equipment.
Emily Kask / for NPR
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61359289a
Hurricane Hunter aircraft are fitted with specialized weather data-monitoring equipment.

On McCoy’s order, Staff Sergeant Donny Arseneaux, the load master on the flight, deploys a device called adropsonde through the belly of the plane. It’s a compact weather station that looks like a cardboard paper towel roll with a tiny parachute attached.

“Every quarter second we get a tick of data back,” Arseneaux says.

As it falls to the surface of the water, the dropsonde measures temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure.

First Lt. Mark McCoy is the weather officer on board. He sends real-time data collected in-flight to the National Hurricane Center so forecasters can predict a storm's threats before landfall.
Emily Kask / for NPR
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First Lt. Mark McCoy is the weather officer on board. He sends real-time data collected in-flight to the National Hurricane Center so forecasters can predict a storm's threats before landfall.
Staff Sergeant Donny Arseneaux gets ready to deploy a dropsonde from the belly of the plane. It takes readings in a hurricane, tracking wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure.
Emily Kask / for NPR
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Staff Sergeant Donny Arseneaux gets ready to deploy a dropsonde from the belly of the plane. It takes readings in a hurricane, tracking wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure.
Monitoring weather data on a Hurricane Hunter training sortie.
Emily Kask for NPR / 61359289a
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Monitoring weather data on a Hurricane Hunter training sortie.

“Using the GPS location, we can track where it moves in the hurricane,” says Arseneaux. “That gives us wind speed and direction.”

Arseneaux feeds all that data to weather officer McCoy, who compiles the readings to send to the National Hurricane Center. It only takes about ten seconds.

The route taken during a Hurricane Hunter training flight over the Gulf of Mexico on May 28, 2024.
Emily Kask / for NPR
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The route taken during a Hurricane Hunter training flight over the Gulf of Mexico on May 28, 2024.

“All that most up-to-date information on what's going on in the storm system is critical for them to be able to find out how to forecast where the hurricane's going,” McCoy says. “Is it intensifying or is it weakening? Just all the internal structures of what's going on in the storm.”

McCoy says that allows forecasters to better predict a hurricane's threats ahead of landfall – the kind of information that can help determine what communities to evacuate and when, and where to stage emergency crews and relief supplies.

Col. William Magee is the Commander of the 403rd Maintenance Group, Air Force Reserve Command, Keesler Air Force Base. He sees the Hurricane Hunters' task as a combat mission to protect the US coastline.
Emily Kask / for NPR
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Col. William Magee is the Commander of the 403rd Maintenance Group, Air Force Reserve Command, Keesler Air Force Base. He sees the Hurricane Hunters' task as a combat mission to protect the US coastline.

“I think this is a combat mission. We are protecting our coastline from these storms,” says Col. William Magee, maintenance group commander for the Air Force’s 403rd wing. He oversees the mechanics who keep the Hurricane Hunter fleet up and running. It’s a tall task given they have the same ten airplanes that were assigned to the group in 1996.

Since, their mission has expanded. They track tropical systems in the Atlantic and Pacific. Then a few years ago they were tasked with a winter season, flying into Northeast storms, and the Atmospheric Rivers that hit the West Coast. So, the Hurricane Hunters' flying season has gone from about half a year to ten months.

Lt.  Col. Marnee Losurdo enters the Hurricane Hunters' headquarters at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss.
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Lt. Col. Marnee Losurdo enters the Hurricane Hunters' headquarters at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss.

“So our personnel get spread very thin,” he says. “Our aircraft get spread very thin.”

Magee says since 2018, they’ve seen a six-fold increase in demand for winter weather reconnaissance missions, and about a 20% uptick in tropical storm reconnaissance. Yet they’re working with the same number of aircraft and personnel – 20 5-person aircrews, about half of them part-time Air Force Reservists.

Magee says adding winter flights takes a toll.

A Hurricane Hunter weather training flight a week before the start of an Atlantic Hurricane season forecasters predict will be "extraordinary" because of climate conditions and abnormally warm ocean temperatures.
Emily Kask / for NPR
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Major Will Simmons co-pilots a Hurricane Hunter weather training flight a week before the start of an Atlantic Hurricane season forecasters predict will be "extraordinary" because of climate conditions and abnormally warm ocean temperatures.

“In years past, that was the time in which we recovered. We recovered our airplanes. We came home and saw our families,” says Magee. “So we're in a deployed status almost all the time. That's wear and tear on this unit.”

That means tough choices. “A dance,” Magee calls it. For instance, at one point last year there were two hurricanes but they could only fly into one, he says, while waiting on repair parts.

Hurricane Hunter commanders are making their case to Congress that they need additional resources. That’s welcome news to the crew on this training flight.

Pilot Zach McDermott says there’s a cumulative effect from trying to respond to everything they’re tasked to cover when mother nature doesn’t let up.

Inside the WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft used by the Air Force Reserve's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron.
Emily Kask / for NPR
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Inside the WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft used by the Air Force Reserve's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron.

“There's no downtime and there's not an extensive amount of time for training like we did tonight, because we're constantly flying these tasked missions,” McDermott says. “More people and more airplanes could help spread out that that workload that we have.”

The Hurricane Hunters are unique, says Commander Magee, and need some relief.

“There's one Hurricane Hunter unit and we're it,” says Commander Magee. "And so, if not us, then who? There is no one else."

First Lt. Zach McDermott pilots a Hurricane Hunter training flight over the Gulf of Mexico.
Emily Kask / for NPR
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First Lt. Zach McDermott pilots a Hurricane Hunter training flight over the Gulf of Mexico.

It's a mission Magee says they take seriously because lives are saved with more accurate forecasts.

The Atlantic Hurricane Season runs from June through November 30th. The winter storm period starts November first and lasts until the end of March.

Copyright 2024 NPR

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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