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Flying With The "Hurricane Hunters"


Can anyone guess what cranks up on June 1st?

Hurricane season.  And a very unique unit also spools up its mission load to an even higher degree during that time.  I'm speaking specifically of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, more popularly known as the "Hurricane Hunters."

Speaking of "unique", this past Tuesday I had the opportunity to be part of a little Air Force history as I and some other bloggers were the first to be given the opportunity to visit and fly with the squadron.

Arranged by Maj. Chad Gibson, Lt Joe Sims and SSG Tanya King of the 403rd Wing's Public Affairs office, bloggers from all over were offered a chance to learn about the mission of the 53rd and actually take a 3.5 hour flight in a WC-130J "Hurricane Hunter" aircraft.

The 53rd is the only weather recon squadron in the US military, and this may come as a surprise, is a totally reserve unit.  The mission load this unit carries is incredible.  In addition to their regular unit drills and annual training, these folks put in, on average, another 120 days a year of active duty.  That's a lot of time away from home for a "part time job", isn't it?

The squadron flies 10 specially build WC-130Js at 47 million a copy.  And this isn't your grandpa's old C-130.  As was evident on climb out, this beauty had some real power.

One of the most important things the Hurricane Hunters do, besides contributing to the tracking of a hurricane and helping us learn more about the storms, is to sharpen the forecasting of its path and landfall by about 30%.  That's huge.

Officials estimate that it costs about $1 million dollars to evacuate the residents of a single coastal mile.  If they can reduce the evacuation area by 50 or a 100 coastal miles, the entire cost of every mission the 53rd will fly that year, to include their winter storm missions, is paid for by one hurricane. And billions is saved by not having to evacuate those who aren't really in the storm's path.

One of the things I found with our aircrew is they apparently love what they do.  Our pilot on the flight, Maj John Wagner, has been flying with the unit for 17 years.  The Aerial Reconnaissance Weather Officer, Ltc Val Hendry has been bashing her way into hurricanes for 23 years.  SMSG Rick Cumbo and MSGT Randy Bynon have been doing it for 10 years and 13 years respectively.  Co-pilot Capt Shane Devlin is the relative new comer with 2 years under his belt.

All in all an extremely enjoyable experience.  We bloggers were treated extremely well.  Frankly we couldn't have asked for better treatment.  Everyone was quite open and informative, and, obviously, very proud of what they do - for good reason.

As the first bloggers on an Air Force flight and with the presense of traditional television media as well, we were as much of the story to them as the flight was to the bloggers.  Here's a local TV station's take on the day.  I'm not sure who that "Bruce McSwain" guy is but what he says is pretty darn true.

By the way,  MSGT Randy Bynun is a blogger as well.  As you might imagine, he blogs about weather and it's some pretty interesting stuff.  Click on over, take a look at what he had to say about the flight and say hello.  If you live on the coast down there, this is a guy you need to be reading.

The 403rd Wing and Air Force PA both have run stories  White Rose has a great post with bunches of pics over at A Soldier's Perspective.  Got to meet Cindy on the flight which was a singular honor.  She's my kind of woman - one who grabs life by the horns and makes it do what she wants it to do with no apologies and no BS.  Hat tip, Cindy.

This orientation flight now puts me and the rest of the bloggers on a list to be called up and fly an actual hurricane at some time in the future.  

On a final note, something which actually endeared the Hurricane Hunters to me was how it all got started.  Maj Jeff Ragusa, who gave us a top notch intro briefing, said the unit's beginning is grounded in a dare made to a Army Air Corps pilot named Maj Joe Duckworth.  They're pretty sure a bar and alcohol were involved.  Anyway, on July 27th, 1943, Duckworth was talked into flying a AT-6 Texan (a single engine trainer) into a hurricane.  He took off from Corpus Christi, flew into the hurricane and landed.  Everyone thought that was pretty cool.  Especially the local weather guy who asked him if he'd do it again and take him with him.  Duckworth did and the Hurricane Hunters were born.

Now you tell me - how in the hell can you not love a unit that began like that?

Photo credit: Tech. Sgt. James B Pritchett