Flying With Hurricane Hunters Part 1

By Staff Sgt. Manuel Martinez, 1st Combat Camera Squadron

On September 14th around lunchtime I was asked, ‘’what does your schedule look like this week and next?’’ Usually that question leads to the words “you’re going on a TDY.” I was eagerly anticipating the words “you’re going to such and such place to document such and such mission.” A few minutes later I was told “you’re going to  Air  Force Base in Mississippi to link up with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron ‘Hurricane Hunters’ and document their missions over Hurricane Igor.”

The next day, I was on a plane to Keesler AFB and meeting and greeting with the crews we would be documenting.  I was impressed with how quickly they planned out the details for their deployment of their WC-130J aircraft and personnel.  I was told that because they do this so often this planning has become second nature.  We soon found oKeeslerut that we would be heading out on the third aircraft going to St. Croix U.S. Virgin Islands, and that we needed to be there in the morning to meet our crew who we would fly with. I eagerly awaited the next day to embark on my photo adventure!

On September 15th, we brought in the bags and awaited our crew to show up for the mission brief. We shortly met with the crew and immediately feel at home. The crew was very close as you would feel in a family.  They had an amazing cohesiveness as I felt a sense of family amongst them.

The flight to St. Croix USVI was a five hour flight, which in comparison to my other flights was short.  We landed, and once the ramp door of the WC-130J was down, I was taken by the sight of such lush green hills and the sweet sea air. After we became situated, we went to their briefing room in their compound on the airfield to plan out the first flight. We found out what our morning show time was. We went to our hotel to get our imagery sent out and to rest up for our flight.

On September 16th we arrived, were briefed and stepped onto the plane.  I was so excited. Who gets to experience flying in a hurricane? Once in the air, I immediately headed up to the flight deck to see how it became cloudier the closer we came to Hurricane Igor. A little while into our flight, I started to see more clouds and waves on the ocean surface.  The plane was not even half way to the hurricane, and the winds were upwards of 30 knots.  I was told that due to Hurricane Igor’s size, its effects could be felt that far away. 

As we closed in on the hurricane’s eye wall, I walked to the flight meteorologist station to see it on the weather radar.  The eye wall was not completely round; it had a few breaks in it, as I was told by the flight meteorologist. I headed back up to the flight deck as we broke the eye wall and headed to the center of the hurricane.  Once we broke through the wall, the light became more subdued versus the bright white light it was before. 

As I observed below and around us, I saw a massive accumulation of clouds but not a distinct form as one would expect by watching weather on TV or videos online. I learned from the crew that it all depends on the hurricane and not all have the same uniform body as one might expect. I was still amazed at the ocean waves under us.  It was, for the most part, a smooth flight but this beast of a storm could sure make a lot of damage to land. I cannot wait until my next mission, which will be a night mission over Hurricane Igor!

PHOTO: U.S. Virgin Islands (September 16, 2010) – U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Levi Denham, a WC-130J Hercules aircraft weather reconnaissance loadmaster assigned to the 53rd Reconnaissance Squadron, performs pre-engine start-up inspections on a Hercules Sept. 16, 2010, in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. Known as the Hurricane Hunters, the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron’s mission is to provide surveillance of tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the central Pacific Ocean for the National Hurricane Center in Miami. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez/Released)