75 years, hunting hurricanes

  • Published
  • By Jessica L. Kendziorek
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

As the historical peak of the season arrives, some Hurricane Hunters look back at the past and talk about their time in the seat.

Hurricane stories vary from person-to-person and squadron-to-squadron, but they all seem to have one thing in common: the capability of their aircraft and the use of instruments for navigation and data collection, proving the hurricane hunters of yesterday, today and tomorrow keep the mission going.

One such story was shared by Billy Boothe Jr, the son of Lt. Col. Billy B. Boothe, Sr., a navigator in the Army Air Force Weather Wing, Detachment 9th Weather Squadron stationed at Morrison Field, West Palm Beach, Florida from a Flying Aces magazine dated January 1945 by Ben F. Field.

On September 12, 1944, the crew of Details Later!, a B-25 bomber aircraft that was equipped with ‘barometers and other meteorological instruments’, flew a mission into one of the most devastating storms to hit the East coast of the United States.

While flying that storm, Boothe, a captain at the time, was responsible for not only navigating the storm, but also taking drift readings on a drift meter, to determine the storm course. He and 2nd Lt. Jerome Pressman, the flight meteorologist, had to gather data and also direct the pilot, Capt. Allen C. Wiggins and co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Victor W. Klobucher through the storm.

The story describes the conversion of the bomber for use during a storm mission and what is was like to fly into the ‘tearing, wrenching fury and darkness of a tropical hurricane’, where the aircrew would be drenched with water when it seeped through the Plexiglas seams.

From the article, Capt. Wiggins described the flight and said Capt. Boothe reported wind readings from 42 knots up to 97 knots during this September storm flight, and described the ocean as ‘a raging green and white mass’ with ‘green streaks so long and solid that it was impossible to tell where they began or ended.’ Wiggins continued his story describing the flight from entering the storm, losing control of the aircraft, because of the loss of lift and the rapid gain and loss of altitude, fighting to control the aircraft and finally exiting the storm.

While the crew of Details Later! never made it into the eye of this storm, hurricane hunting continued with others reaching the eye of the storm.

One Airman who made it into the eye of the storm was Master Sgt. Lee Snyder, retired 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, dropsonde system operator and loadmaster, whose first storm mission was into Hurricane Camille in 1969, on a C-130B Hercules while he was stationed at Ramey Air Force Base, Puerto Rico.

“It was a terrible storm, but I was too wrapped up in the mission to even understand the magnitude of the damage that it wreaked on the Gulf Coast at the time,” said Snyder. “We didn’t have time to get up to look around in the storm.”

Snyder went on to recount how a typical day would be for the crews when they weren’t flying an active storm.

“When we were at Ramey AFB, we would fly program tracts between the island and the African coast, in a south-southeastern, a north-northeastern direction and into the gulf,” said Snyder. “Of course this was pre-satellite, so the name ‘Hurricane Hunters’ came from us having to go look for the weather systems and determine if it was going to form into a storm.”

These program tracts were shaped like big rectangles or circles each one with their own name; such as the Alpha, Charlie or Echo tract, and were pre-planned by the navigators. When the crews were briefed on the tract assigned that day, they already knew how many dropsondes would be released and the flight duration, because these were long missions.

“The weather data we collected, when it was sent back to the National Hurricane Center, would establish if there was an anomaly in the weather and if it bared further investigation,” said Snyder. “Then we had an area to focus on instead of these large areas that we were flying, because we truly hunted back in those days.”

Snyder was part of the transition from Ramey AFB moving the 53rd WRS to Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi in 1973. No sooner than the squadron was moved to Keesler AFB, a storm mission sent him back after only three weeks.

However with the move to Keesler AFB, another enlisted member, an Air Force Reservist, was able to begin her journey hunting hurricanes as part of the 815th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron aka “Storm Trackers”. Staff Sgt. Wanda Busby, now a retired Major, flew on the C-130H model aircraft in November 1977, and was the first female in the Air Force to fly into a hurricane.

“I was more excited than anything else for my first mission, but I don’t really remember the storm part, because as a student on your first time out, you were too busy doing the job and what needed to be done to actually think about it being a storm,” said Busby.

In the ‘H’ model, like the ‘B’ and ‘E’ models, the weather officer was located on the flight deck and the dropsonde operator was in the back of the aircraft behind a large internal fuel tank. If it was busy, they got up long enough to put the drops in, sit back down to do the calculations, document changes, and plot those changes on a chart.

“Some of the worst storms I ever flew in were the ones along the East coast when we were tracking thunderstorms, while the hurricanes and tropical storms that were organized weren’t that rough, these disorganized thunderstorms were very rough,” said Busby. “I remember hearing on one low level invest that we ran up on a water spout, but I didn’t get to see it because I was too busy in the back of the plane.”

“When we started off, nothing was automated and we had to do everything manually. We would get the ticker tape information with the pressure, temperature, dew point on it from the dropsondes sent back to the plane,” said Busby. “Then we would use a type of ruler that had stripes on it to look at one thing at a time, evaluate information to look for changes across the numbers, plot those on the map, and find the significant and mandatory levels to transmit to the weather officer, who would verify the information and radio it to the NHC.”

While today the weather officer, or aerial reconnaissance weather officer is still in charge of sending the data to the NHC, it is done in the form of an instant message, and they transmit within minutes of getting the information.

“When I first got into the unit, there were times that we had to send the data codes via (high frequency) radio,” said Maj. Nicole Mitchell, an ARWO in the 53rd WRS, and the last ARWO still serving that flew in the C-130H. “Now sending code is done via satellite transmissions and we have a satellite phone if the message doesn’t go through. We also had to complete calculations by hand as a back-up to the equipment.”

Changing over to the C-130J Super Hercules, the single reserve fuel tank was moved from inside the aircraft to the exterior. A second tank was added so that now a reserve tank hangs below each wing. This move also brought about the transition of the weather officer’s station from the flight deck to the cargo area next to the loadmaster.

Mitchell said that while the computer the weather officers used pretty much stayed the same, another upgrade came in the form of the Stepped Frequency Microwave Radiometer, (SFMR), nicknamed the “Smurf”. This piece of equipment is used to read the wind speed from the surface of the water, which was previously done visually by the weather officer.

“Learning how to visually read waves was one of the first things that I had to do,” said Mitchell. “We used a chart that depending on what altitude you are at, tells you how the waves are going to look and what that means for wind speeds.”

“So just starting to see white caps, means not a lot of wind. When the wind is really cranking more air and bubbles gets into the water, you start seeing big foam lines and enough wind to streak it backward then the chart shows an upgrade to the wind speed levels,” she said. “When the water starts getting a green tint because of that aeriation and then you know it is a higher level of wind speed.”

Similar to the first days of hurricane hunting during World War II, what the crew members see and experience while flying through hurricanes remain basically the same. Hurricanes still have the same intensity and destructive power; however, the hurricane hunters of today to go directly where they are needed to gather the data to save lives instead of having to “hunt” them down.

Busby said it best when she said, “Weather is both an art and a science, forecasting can’t be done without people involved. So while the newer planes are more automated and satellites tell them where to go, they still can’t get the data without people going into the storms.”