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USAF Hurricane Hunters Chasing Irene

With Hurricane Irene about to cause the end of days here on the east coast (sarcasm) we thought we'd remind everyone of the fact that, over the last week, the WC-130J Weatherbirds of the USAF's 53rd weather reconnaisance squadron have been flying multiple missions a day into the storm.

The Herks are customized with scientific equipment that collects info on turbulence, icing, visibility, cloud types and amounts, and ocean surface winds.

One of the most important tools on board are the GPS Dropsondes which the plane dumps like sonobouys every 400 miles in the vicinity of a hurricane. As the Dropsonde slowly descends, it collects info on barometric pressure, temperature and wind data using  high frequency radio sensors. This info is fed back to the Weatherbird where it is then analyzed and can be beamed via satellite to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Fla. The planes also have something called the Stepped Frequency Microwave Radiometer, (called the Smurf by the aircrews) which measures surface winds and rain below the plane.

The new J-model Weatherbirds have special coatings on their composite propeller blades to protect them from hail damage, pretty cool.

You might think flying into an intense hurricane would be a bit bumpy. However, hurricane hunters have told me that a strong hurricane moves like a quickly spinning top; in other words it's stable and doesn't make for a very rough ride. Things gets choppy for the Weatherbirds when a storm loses steam and wobbles like a top that starts to slow down.

Now, the Hurricane Hunter fleet has shrunk considerably in the last few decades. The Air Force used to have at least four weather recon squadrons operating WC-130Es and later WC-130Hs around the world from the 1960s through 2005. Since then, only the Air Force Reserve's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron and it's new WC-130Js has been dedicated to that mission.  I asked Teal Group Aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia if he thinks the Air Force could be forced to abandon the hurricane hunter mission in a time of tight budgets. His response; probably not.

"A robust airborne asset well equipped with sensors would give you a phenomenal level of situational awareness for natural disasters," said Aboulafia. Cutting such a capability for limited savings would simply be a "remarkably short-sighted move," he added.

While the Air Force has an whole squadron trained personnel and a fleet of 10, almost brand new WC-130Js that are tricked out for the mission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has two old U.S Navy P-3 Orion sub-hunters and a Gulfstream IV business jet that it uses for the same task. Read more about NOAA's hurricane hunters here.

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