Hurricane Hunters in Training

By ELIZABETH VOWELL | May 16, 2011

In 1944, two pilots made a bet that an American single engine aircraft couldn’t fly through a hurricane without falling apart.

Shortly after making this wager, Maj. Joe Duckworth got his chance to prove his buddy wrong. Duckworth flew two missions through the eye of a hurricane that landed a few weeks later.

During his voyages, he and his passenger took rudimentary weather information like temperature and pressure.

Nearly 70 years later, that first flight has evolved into a specialized mission that has reshaped how we view hurricanes.

“It saves people’s lives. If they can evacuate with timely data, good weather prediction. If we can help with that, it’s what we do. It’s what we love doing,” said Jay May, a pilot with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron Hurricane Hunters.

The Hurricane Hunters, based out of Keesler Air Force Base, now work in teams of five, flying into the heart of one of nature’s most powerful forces to collect invaluable data.

“I drop the weather instruments into the eye of the storm,” said Loadmaster Jenna Tucker. “Once it’s dropped you get about two pieces of information per second to my computer. Once it’s done I’ll look over the information and I’ll send it over to the weather officer who sends it to the National Hurricane Center.”

The National Hurricane Center can then use that data to better predict the path and forecast of storms.

There are two key instruments at the heart of the Hurricane Hunters: the dropsonde, that measures temperature, pressure, humidity and location; and the Stepped-Frequency Microwave Radiometer that reads surface wind speeds. The SFMR is affectionately known as Smurf.

There are also several software programs that allow the Hurricane Hunters to communicate with the hurricane center in real time.

“We’re able to provide two different products. Number one, we can tell the hurricane center where the storm is here and now. Number two, we’re able to provide data that they put in the forecast models to give the forecast models a better idea of what’s happening in the storm, and give you a more accurate forecast as well,” said weather officer Christopher Dyke.

According to the National Weather Service, the data provided by the Hurricane Hunters makes forecasting up to 30 percent more accurate. While 30 percent may seem like a small improvement, it actually translates into millions of dollars saved in storm preparations each year.

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