KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
The 2020 Atlantic and Pacific hurricane seasons, at least technically, came to an end Nov. 30, and what a season it was.
The Atlantic side saw many records broken throughout the season, including dethroning 2005 and its 28 named storms as the busiest season on record with 30 named storms for this year.
In addition to being the busiest, 27 of those 30 have been the earliest to form on record per letter name.
Of course, a historical hurricane season means a packed schedule for the Air Force Reserve’s 403rd Wing and their 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron “Hurricane Hunters.” Throw in a global pandemic and four evacuations and this season was one of the busiest for the Reserve Citizen Airmen as well.
The 53rd WRS is one of two entities in the United States whose mission it is to fly weather reconnaissance missions into tropical systems and the only one in the Department of Defense.
The unit boasts a fleet of 10 specially modified WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft that fly either low-level or fix missions depending on the severity of a storm. Low-level missions are typically flown at 500-1,500 feet and the objective is to indicate if there is closed circulation signifying further development and intensification. Fix missions range from 5,000-10,000 feet and the objective is to find the low-pressure center of a storm.
To make these findings possible, dropsondes able to record pressure, humidity, wind speed, and temperature are released throughout a storm, and an external radiometer attached to the aircraft records rainfall rates and surface winds directly below. That data collected is sent to the National Hurricane Center where it is applied to their forecast models.
The squadron got an early start this season, flying its first tasking into an invest that later became Tropical Storm Arthur, May 16, two weeks before the Atlantic hurricane season’s official start date of June 1.
Following Arthur, aircrews would find themselves in 19 more named storms in the Atlantic Ocean and two in the Pacific.
While generally the Hurricane Hunters operate out of their home base here, the Mississippi Gulf Coast is not always a viable option to take off from logistically. For this reason, the squadron at times, has to deploy in order to fly missions into a storm. The two main deployment locations are St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Hawaii.
While a relatively slow Pacific season required the 53rd to deploy once to Hawaii for Hurricane Douglas, the unit visited St. Croix three times.
In addition to the logistics element, the Gulf Coast is no stranger to tropical activity itself, and Keesler found itself in the “cone of uncertainty” for Hurricanes Marco, Laura, Sally, Delta, and Zeta. Operations cannot continue in situations where winds exceed 25 knots, so to keep the mission going as well as to protect the aircraft from what would be expensive damage, the 403rd Wing’s leadership deemed it necessary to evacuate the 53rd’s WC-130Js as well as the 815th Airlift Squadron’s 10 C-130Js (6 for Hurricanes Delta and Zeta) four different times.
“We went on the road eight times to fly 11 different storms,” said Maj. Jeremy DeHart, 53rd WRS aerial weather reconnaissance officer. “One of those deployments was a two-week marathon session flying back-to-back storms from start to finish. Another four deployments were to evacuate the aircraft due to the threat of direct impacts at home, which takes an extra toll on our personnel.”
Naturally, a busy season did mean minor setbacks. A lightning strike here and a maintenance issue there, kept a handful of missions from fulfilling the NHC’s fix needs, but, according to Warren Madden, senior meteorologist and lead of Chief, Aerial Reconnaissance Coordination All Hurricanes, the squadron completed 93% of their 200 fixes in a season that ranks third busiest as far as hours flown since 1975 with 1,950.9 hours between the 53rd and NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters.
Behind the scenes during all of these storms was Madden and his three-person team at CARCAH, a sub-unit of the 53rd WRS located in Coral Gables, Florida with the NHC. There they act as a liaison between the NHC and the 53rd to coordinate reconnaissance flights.
“This year presented unprecedented challenges to our unit,” said Madden. “We, along with the entire National Hurricane Center, were in a learn-as-you-go environment all season as we rapidly moved from an in-person work environment to a combination of socially distanced and remote work to minimize risk of coronavirus infection. The sheer amount of storm missions made for a grueling season, with long stretches of continuous 24-hour operations for our 3-person unit. While it certainly isn’t an experience we care to repeat, we are proud that we were able to adapt to the situation and maintain full mission capacity.”
From those pushing orders through to the wrench turners to the first sergeant providing refreshments for those working long hours, the Airmen of the 403rd Wing made the season a success.
“It’s said records are made to be broken, but it was never our goal to break this one (total number of hurricanes),” said Col. Jeffrey A. Van Dootingh, 403rd Wing commander. “I couldn’t be more proud of how our Airmen performed under unprecedented circumstances to save life and limb.”