On Tuesday May 19th I had the opportunity to fly with, what I consider to be, one of the United States Air Force Elite flying units: The Hurricane Hunters. This flight was a part of an extensive Social Media initiative put together by the 403rd Wing Public Affairs Team. It was the first of it’s kind in the Air Force – what I mean by that is this was the first Media flight that was specifically targeting Bloggers.
The first point I think I need to emphasize here is that the men and women of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron are Reservists. They come from 36 different states and at least one commutes from overseas to be a part of this group.
They operate 10 WC130-J Model aircraft. The 403rd Wing is the 3rd largest operator of this aircraft behind two countries – that’s right – they operate this aircraft more than most countries. The only people who operate it more are England and Italy. They have more than 40,000 hours in this airframe and are well on their way to 45,000. In 2008 alone, they flew more than 1000 hours making 162 passes through the eye of a hurricane. One of the lesser known mission of the Hurricane Hunters is their assistance with winter storms, last year they flew 55 winter storm missions along with their normal hurricane duties.
One thing I can tell you for sure is this plane is fast. My favorite moment of the day was a quote from Maj Chad Gibson – Chief of Public Affairs for the 403rd: “This plane will fly like a homesick angel.” He’s not kidding, on takeoff, we didn’t simply float gently into the air – we ripped ourselves from the ground. We bitch slapped gravity and won.
Once airborne we flew the same pattern they would fly if passing through the eye of a hurricane. During these maneuvers they dropped small weather data collection devices called “dropsondes”. Our flight concluded with an aerial tour of New Orleans.
While on board, I had the opportunity to talk to every crew member. I can tell you that these men and women are dedicated to their mission. The weather data they collect increases the overall accuracy of the forecasts by 30%. One of the most amazing statistics from the trip was the cost of activating the warning system to initiate an evacuation – $86 Million Dollars. As Major Gibson put it “Every time IMG_0148they hit the button, it’s $86 Million dollars.” It costs about $1,000,000 per mile to evacuate coastline. If you think about the cost savings alone by putting these airmen in the air, it’s worth it – not to mention the lives they save.
As Hurricane Season is upon us I just want to remind everyone to heed the warnings of forecasters and be prepared. This trip gave me an opportunity to reflect on my time at Hurricane Katrina and the impact the Hurricane Hunters had in saving lives, even in a disaster of that scale.
I leave you with some photos: