It is about 5:15 p.m. on a Thursday evening and the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, also known as the Hurricane Hunters, are making their descent back into the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix.
The crew has just returned from flying on the inside of the eye of Hurricane Sam, a Category 4 Hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean after passing to the north of the U.S. Virgin Islands Wednesday. Their mission is to collect data and provide the information to the National Hurricane Center.
As the WC-130J aircraft approaches its designated parking area you can feel the winds pick up and the sound of a loud roaring aircraft. It is truly a sight to see. The aircraft is equipped with palletized meteorological data-gathering instruments. The person controlling the data-gather instruments is Aerial Reconnaissance Weather Officer Lt. Col Ryan Rickert.
Made by Lockheed-Martin, the WC-130J is touted by its maker as “the world’s most powerful meteorologist.”
Rickert said that the crew is not flying into Tropical Storm Victor, because it is not expected to make landfall. Hurricane Sam, however, is predicted to affect the island of Bermuda as a tropical storm, prompting the Hurricane Hunters aloft to gather data.
The 53rd Weather Renaissance Squadron was activated in 1944 during World War II and served as the third Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, Air Route, Medium, tracking weather in the North Atlantic between North America and Europe. Since 1996 it has been using St. Croix as a forward base each year during hurricane season.
“A basic crew that goes into the hurricane is comprised of five people. A pilot, co-pilot, navigator, an aerial reconnaissance weather officer, and a loadmaster,” Rickert said. Sometimes on longer missions, the crew will be augmented with as many as three more members, bringing the crew size to as many as eight.
The pilot is the aircraft commander, and the co-pilot commands the flight controls. The navigator keeps track of the aircraft’s position and movement and monitors radar to avoid tornadic activity. The flight meteorologist acts as flight director and observes and records meteorological data at flight level using a computer that encodes weather data every 30 seconds. The weather reconnaissance loadmaster collects and records vertical meteorological data using a parachute-borne sensor known as a dropsonde. It measures and encodes weather data down to the ocean surface.
Rickert said when the plane is traveling inside the storm it undergoes turbulence that cannot be compared to a regular commercial aircraft. Sometimes the aircraft gets struck by lightning, experiences hailstorms or rough turbulence. The visibility for pilots is white clouds but they keep the plane level. Once they get through the eyewall, the center of the eye is calm.
“You have to be pretty special to enjoy this job. All of us really enjoy what we do because we know what it is doing and why it is important providing information to hurricane central to forecast tropical cyclones more accurately,” said Rickert. “Information goes into forecast models, so they get more accurate information. It improves the models across the world the data that we provide into the models.”
The Hurricane Hunters also assist with notifying emergency agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency by keeping them informed of a potential storm. This year, Rickert said many of the storms have been disorganized and have affected most areas only with a lot of rain. Rickert also predicts that we will get into the alphabetic end of storm names as we did last season because of the many storms that have occurred this year.