“In the eye of a hurricane,you learn things other than of scientific nature. You feel the puniness of man and his works. If a true definition of humility is ever written, it might well be written in the eye of a hurricane.”
–Edward R. Murrow
IN THE BEGINNING WAS A DARE
It was the height of the second World War and a hurricane was raging off the Texas coast. A group of British and American pilots at an Army instrument flight school in Bryan, Texas, gathered over lunch and talked about every pilot’s favorite subject: their airplanes. Some of the British pilots had combat experience and argued that the school’s main training aircraft, an AT-6 Texan, was useless in, say, the approaching hurricane. Lieutenant Colonel Joe Duckworth, one of the instructors defended his airplanes, saying the AT-6 was very much capable of entering such a storm on instruments.
The other pilots dared him to prove it.
Duckworth grabbed his favorite navigator on base, Ralph O’Hair, strapped into an AT-6 and on July ??, 1943, turned the wings into the winds of the tempest. By keeping a line of bearings from radio stations to pinpoint their position, O’Hair found the eye of the storm. They radioed the coordinates of the eye to the Houston weather station and escaped unharmed.
So began the first hurricane penetration and a leap forward in meteorological history. The same day the meteorological community picked up on the value of this dare. Duckworth’s main reason to fly into the storm had been to get the critics of the instrument proficiency checks of the AT-6 eliminated, but in doing so he opened the possibility for meteorologists to penetrate, or “penny”, a storm to find its exact center–a valuable data for forecasting the mother of all chaotic systems.
Before the end of the war, several squadrons took charge of the breakneck mission to fly into hurricanes on a daily basis to determine the wind speeds, exact location of the center and atmospheric pressure, the most notable unit being the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. But as with every new idea, the squadron and its predecessors were haunted by the Forces of Resistance: trial-and-error incidents, budget-cuts and Congress.
THE DAYS BEFORE SATELLITES
After the end of the war, the Air Force, Navy and the Weather Bureau worked out a national plan to collect hurricane warning information from several squadrons. For the pilots and crews, it was a time of acquiring the skills to surf a massive storm and writing the books on how to do it along the way. A pilot’s flying finesse and a radio compass were the only survival tools, since all flights were done “on instruments”, meaning that the crew hardly ever looked out the windows but kept their eyes glued to their gauges and dials. One of the first squadrons to penny was the Army Hurricane Reconnaissance Unit, using the medium bomber WB-25 Mitchell. In September of 1945 the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron took over and except for a few interruptions along the way, continued the mission to this day.
At first the 53rd did routine weather reconnaissance missions, but soon “Hurricane Hunting” became their primary mission and their spearhead, the B-17 Flying Fortress. Maybe it was the name, but it was assumed that this aircraft could survive the beating of a hurricane. And it did, at least for the first two pennies. During the third penny into their first hurricane one B-17 hit a mean spot in the west quadrant and flipped nose down and tail up onto its back. The crew went flying through the compartment, but the skilled pilot managed to maneuver the bucking aircraft out of the storm and limped it back to the barn. The wings were so buckled and wrinkled, after landing it was towed directly to the graveyard. It was the weight that nearly killed the aircraft. From heron the squadron made the planes lighter and tried again.
The U.S. Weather Bureau, boosted with the help of the hurricane hunters, began an around-the-clock hurricane warning service on June 16, 1947. In a time when meteorology was practiced solely by men, tropical storms were given male names in alphabetical order for better identification. Later the names of women were added as feminism took hold of meteorology. This was also the time of hand-over-fist breakthroughs in the fields of nuclear power and other branches of science, and a time when a certain invincibility dominated humanity; it was believed that after splitting the atom, science was also capable of greater things, one of them being weather control. In 1947 the 53rd participated in the first of a series of experiments to seed hurricanes with dry ice. It was expected that the ice would diminish the intensity. The results were ambiguous but did pave the way into what henceforth was known as weather modification (in the following years the Weather Bureau purchased a wing of surplus P-3 Orion bombers who continued the experiments for Project STORMFURY, an ambitious NOAA test to seed cyclones with silver iodide in order to change intensity).
CORROSION AND SANTA CLAUS
After 1947, responsibilities were split. The Navy took charge of the Caribbean, while the 53rd tracked storms in the West Central Atlantic. But in the drawdown at the end of the war, the 53rd took a heavy loss. They became inactive for nearly three and a half years. It wasn’t until February 21, 1951, that the importance of the hurricane hunters became evident again and the squadron was reborn on Kindley Field, Bermuda. But the Flying Fortress was aging and corrosion became a serious problem; an ordinary flight left the crew soaked. Fortunately, the end of the war left a lot of good planes jobless. One of these was the B-29 Superfortress, the largest aircraft the Air Force could boast with up unto this point in time. After undergoing special equipping (and a serious weight loss), the B-29 used by the 53rd were designated with a “W” for weather service. It was aboard one of these WB-29 that Edward. R. Murrow jotted down the above quote. A WB-29 of this squadron was also the first aircraft to enter the top of a hurricane at 22,000 feet.
The majority of the 53rd squadron moved later to Burtonwood Air Force Base, England, to better cover winter storms in the northern hemisphere. The routine flights far north caused the development of a contemporary legend: children of squadron personnel believed that their fathers visited Santa Claus and requested them to take letters along. The rumors of the Santa-Claus-visiting squadron spread, and by Christmas of 1955, letters from great parts of Western Europe poured into the 53rd for delivery to The Man In The Red Bathrobe.
But continuous submergence into a storm’s deluge rendered even the Superfortress powerless against corrosion. It was once again time to switch aircraft class and the WB-29 was replaced with the WB-50 Superfortress. It was a similar aircraft in handling as the WB-29, only a bit larger and with 850 miles more range. The 53rd continued its nomadic life by moving to the RAF base in Alconbury, while both the Navy and the Air Weather Service continued flying WB-50s for their Hurricane Hunting missions. Later the 53rd relocated again to Mildenhall until March of 1960, when the squadron once again succumbed to budget-cuts for two years. In January of 1962 the 53rd rose again in Kindley Field, Bermuda. But it took a political crisis to demonstrate the immense value of the Hurricane Hunters.
SOVIET MISSILES IN THE WRONG PLACE
On October 14 an American spy plane detected a ballistic missile on the Communist island of Cuba, not 90 miles from America’s shores. On October 22, President Kennedy revealed the situation on television. “I have directed the armed forces,” he warned, “to prepare for any eventuality.” This statement included the Hurricane Hunters and their WB-50 Superfortress. It was this squadron’s responsibility to fly weather reconnaissance missions near and around Cuba and provide the CIA with weather data to plan their photo-reconnaissance flights. But the sudden interest in Cuba by a squadron that had once participated in the attempt to modify the weather flared yet another contemporary legend: Cuban media began accusing the squadron of seeding the hurricanes with chemicals in order to direct their destructive path into Cuban territory. With the STORMFURY experiments by NOAA still in full swing at the time, this rumor was hard to come by.
HERCULES AND STRATOJET
The importance of the Hurricane Hunters during the Cuban Missile crisis attracted much attention from Congress. The budget grew and soon a whole new flotilla of aircraft was assigned to become Hurricane Hunters: the C-130 Hercules and the WB-47 Stratojet. Fast, sturdy and capable of high altitudes thanks to its turbojet engines, the Stratojet was thought to be the best plane in the 53rd inventory. The first flights evidenced just how sturdy: although Boeing warned that the engines might “flame out” in the heavy rain, the flights caused no damages–except maybe in the pants of some crew members. Picture flying into a wall of super-cooled water at high speed and an altitude of 30,000 feet: the engine instrument panel goes bananas, the flexible wings begin being too flexible, and a bow wave builds up on the windscreen. The crews soon refused to take the WB-47 deep into the storms and instead skirted only the outsides.
But it was the C-130 Hercules that rewrote Hurricane Hunting. Although tough and loved, the WB-50 had taken its toll of 66 lives in 13 accidents over a period of ten years, and the Air Weather Service requested a better breed of planes. Since its first rollout in 1955, the C-130 was hailed as an achievement in aircraft design. Its pressurized cabin, powerful Allison turboprop engines and long range seemed like a dream come true for the soaked Hurricane Hunters. But it wasn’t until 1962 that the AWS was granted authority to purchase five fresh-from-the-factory C-130Bs, purpose-built for atmospheric sampling. They were delivered to the 55th WRS at McClellan AFB, Georgia, but later transferred to the 53rd, who called at this time Ramey AFB in Puerto Rico their home. Equipped with an AN/AMR-1 Dropsonde Recording System, the WC-130 quickly became the best Hurricane Hunter ever all the way into the eighties.
MORE HUNTERS GO HUNTING
In 1969 Camille, the most powerful hurricane until then recorded, devastated the Gulf Coast and Congress realized that the 53rd was too far away from home. The squadron moved one more time to Keesler AFB, Mississippi. The pushing and shoving from Congress also caused more and more interest in hurricane hunting. Several years later the Air Force Reserve also attempted its luck. The 815th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron “Storm Trackers” were born out of a tactical airlift and soon shared the bulk of flying missions. At about the same time the government closed the book on weather modification, and Project STORMFURY drew to an end; to this day it is still unclear if seeding a hurricane with chemicals is effective. But what was to be done with a wing of hurricane-capable P-3 Orions and the experienced crews to go with them? There was only one logical option: the P-3s became NOAA’s very own Hurricane Hunter squadron.
The C-130 also brought an entire new standard in safety for the crew. While previously accidents seemed to be the order of the day while flying a hurricane, no serious accident were recorded in the C-130 — until October 13, 1974. ‘Swan 38’ (tailnumber 65-0965) of the 54th WRS was flying typhoon Betsy over the South China Sea about 200 miles south-east of Hong Kong, when she dissapeared without a trace. All six crewmember are carried as Killed In Action.
By the end of the eighties three units were flying hurricanes, both in the Pacific and the Atlantic: the 815th Storm Trackers, the 53rd Hurricane Hunters and the NOAA P-3s. Once again budget-cuts killed the Air Force 53rd in 1991, and the Air Force Reserve picked up the mission alone. But in 1993 the 815th returned to its tactical airlift mission, while the 53rd was resurrected as an Air Force Reserve squadron.
TODAY AND THE FUTURE
At the end of the millennium only two units remained: the 53rd Air Force Reserve Weather Reconnaissance Squadron “Hurricane Hunters” at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration “Storm Trackers” at NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center at McDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. It is up to these two units to deliver hurricane and severe weather warnings to the U.S. Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center.
Improvements on the on board computer systems turned the WC-130s into flying labs and the newest addition to the squadron, the WC-130J, changed the way hurricane hunting is done. In 1997 NOAA opened yet another chapter in storm tracking, by introducing the Gulfstream IV SP, a high-altitude jet capable of taking atmospheric samplings in areas the turboprop can only dream of.
Much had changed over this sixty year history, not just the airplanes. While early weather officers aboard a hunter had to jot down atmospheric readings by hand and relay them via radio, this workload has been taken over by computers and satellites. The modern weather officer needs only to make sure the computer takes the readings and sends them via satellite directly to the hurricane center. Even dropsondes have made things easier: an operator specially assigned to the task fires a sonde through the belly of the airplane into the storm. As the sonde falls, the readings are received by the airplane from were they are bounced to the satellite and into the meteorologists computer.
Much will still change as computers grow faster and more powerful, and on board instruments more accurate. But one vital instrument will never change: the men and women who risk their lives on a daily basis to fly into a hurricane to get us all this vital data so we can sleep easier, knowing that we wont ever be surprised by the winds of the tempest.