Reservists wrap up Hurricane Ida reconnaissance

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kristen Pittman
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

The Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron Hurricane Hunters assigned to the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., finished flying Hurricane Ida as the category 4 storm made landfall in Louisiana, Aug. 29.

The squadron began flying the storm when it was a tropical depression on Thursday, and they found it had developed into a tropical storm. Ida continued to strengthen quickly, a trend it would sustain until its United States landfall, and became a hurricane before its second Cuba landfall.

With the track forecasted to impact Keesler, 403rd Wing leadership made the decision to evacuate all WC-130Js that were able to, as well as their 10 C-130Js assigned to the 815th Airlift Squadron Flying Jennies.

“There’s a threshold of wind the aircraft can withstand on the flightline before there’s a real chance at very expensive damage,” said Lt. Col. Mark Withee, navigator for the 53rd WRS. “With the National Hurricane Center’s forecast in consideration and how fast the storm was moving, we had to make the decision quickly to get the aircraft out, and luckily Kelly Field has been very accommodating.”

The majority of the 16 aircraft able to evacuate left Keesler Friday and relocated to Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas where the squadron continued to support the National Hurricane Center with flights into Ida as well as one flight into Hurricane Nora off the West Coast of Mexico.

The 53rd WRS is the only unit in the Department of Defense that flies into storms to collect atmospheric data. Their 10 WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft are specially equipped with stepped frequency microwave radiometers and two pallets inside, one for the aerial reconnaissance weather officer and the other for the loadmaster/dropsonde operator.

The SFMR measures wind and rainfall below the aircraft while dropsondes are released from the aircraft and measure atmospheric properties from flight level to the surface. This data is sent directly from the aircraft to NHC where they take that data and inject it into their models to create more accurate, up-to-date forecasts.

Flying along with the 53rd were U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen and Woods Hole Oceanography Institute personnel led by Navy Capt. (Dr.) Beth Sanabia, an instructor from the USNA oceanography department, for their annual Training and Research in Oceanic and Atmospheric Processes in Tropical Cyclones internship program..

According to Sanabia, they observe the ocean in and around hurricanes to improve intensity and track forecasts and to understand the evolution of the ocean under the storm.”

The team accomplishes this by launching Airborne Expendable Bathythermographs and Air Launched Autonomous Micro Observer buoys from the Hurricane Hunter aircraft. This equipment measures the temperature of the ocean to a set depth, and the ALAMO buoy also measures the salinity of the ocean.

Working the storm was particularly significant considering the close proximity to many 403rd Wing members’ homes and families as well as it landing on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s catastrophic landfall.

“We’re always honored to provide this service for any area, but it literally ‘hits home’ working a storm of this magnitude, knowing it will affect the homes and families of a lot of our aircrews, maintainers, and support personnel,” said Lt. Col. Erik Olson, Director of Operations for the 53rd WRS, and the Deployed Commander for the group while in San Antonio. “It took a lot of coordination and hard work from all involved—and no operation can go off without a hitch--but everyone was up to the challenges faced. The hospitality from the members of the 502nd Operational Support Squadron at Kelly Field was also a big factor in making sure the mission could continue. Our team made it happen, even with the stinging memories of Katrina in the backs of their minds.  We do it to make sure the NHC has the data they need so the people on the Gulf Coast have the best possible forecast to prepare and make those potentially life-saving decisions.”