Hurricane Hunters switch gears to fly winter storms missions

A team from the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron,  / © U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Randy Bynon

A team from the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, / © U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Randy Bynon

Posted By Philip Stevens

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- The Hurricane Hunters are in full swing with winter storm missions in Anchorage, Alaska.

The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron has had little down time because of overlapping obligations, flying winter storm missions in November while still performing hurricane flights through Dec. 1, the official end of the hurricane season. Storms this winter season have kept the squadron hopping through the holidays with the blizzard that swept through the Northern regions.

Operations are directed by the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, a part of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Like their tropical reconnaissance missions, they will collect the data and add it to forecast models for more accurate predictions.

"The aircraft acts as a mobile observation platform gathering horizontal information by looking out across the storm," said Capt. Tobi Baker, aerial reconnaissance weather officer for the 53rd WRS. "We fly a pre-laid track with specific points to gather data with dropsondes. The points are determined by NCEP."

Dropsondes are highly sensitive devices which fall nearly 2,500 feet per second measuring temperature, wind speed, humidity, and pressure. One mission can use up to 25 dropsondes and last from six to 12 hours.

The information collected is checked onboard and then relayed by satellite to the NOAA Weather Service supercomputer which incorporates it into the agency's numerical prediction models. This information helps "fill-in-the-blanks" or bolster the data in computer climate models that forecast storms and precipitation for the entire U.S.

"The goal is to make a good forecast so that cities can be prepared with snow plows, and other snow removal and mitigation equipment to diminish the impact of a winter storm on a city," said Lt. Col. Roy Deatherage, 53rd WRS ARWO. "If they are better prepared, they can recover more quickly. That can be crucial for residents living in harm's way. These forecasts provide people in the path of the storms with warnings that can save lives."

According to Captain Baker, when it comes to the formations of the different storms, there is no comparison. While hurricanes tend to be independent having their own entities, winter storm missions deal with general weather.

"There are pros and cons to both missions," said Captain Baker. "Winter missions are much colder, but less turbulent because of the altitude. "

Hurricane Hunters fly winter storms anywhere from 30,000 to 34,000 feet, which is at least 20,000 feet higher than hurricane missions.

Not only do the Hurricane Hunters observe the weather in the Pacific, they operate the same mission in storms off the Northeast coast and sometimes the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA's Gulfstream IV-SP aircraft flies from Japan to collect data on Pacific storms as well. With the research from all sources, forecast models can have more specific information about storms that directly affect the U.S.

The 53rd WRS will continue flying winter missions through Apr. 30, gathering data to aid forecast models. With the 53rd WRS effectively operating winter and hurricane missions, forecasters can better prepare citizens and government officials personally and monetarily.

Source: USAF 403rd Wing Public Affairs

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