Hurricane hunters

Last updated
A NOAA WP-3D Orion weather reconnaissance aircraft Lockheed WP-3D Orion.jpg
A NOAA WP-3D Orion weather reconnaissance aircraft

Hurricane hunters are aircrews that fly into tropical cyclones to gather weather data. In the United States, the organizations that fly these missions are the United States Air Force Reserve's 53d Weather Reconnaissance Squadron and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hurricane Hunters. Such missions have also been flown by Navy units and other Air Force and NOAA units.

Tropical cyclone Is a rotating storm system

A tropical cyclone is a rapidly rotating storm system characterized by a low-pressure center, a closed low-level atmospheric circulation, strong winds, and a spiral arrangement of thunderstorms that produce heavy rain. Depending on its location and strength, a tropical cyclone is referred to by different names, including hurricane, typhoon, tropical storm, cyclonic storm, tropical depression, and simply cyclone. A hurricane is a tropical cyclone that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean and northeastern Pacific Ocean, and a typhoon occurs in the northwestern Pacific Ocean; in the south Pacific or Indian Ocean, comparable storms are referred to simply as "tropical cyclones" or "severe cyclonic storms".

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration An American scientific agency within the US Department of Commerce that focuses on the oceans and the atmosphere

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is an American scientific agency within the United States Department of Commerce that focuses on the conditions of the oceans, major waterways, and the atmosphere.

NOAA Hurricane Hunters

The NOAA Hurricane Hunters are a group of aircraft used for hurricane reconnaissance by the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They fly through hurricanes to help forecasters and scientists gather operational and research data. The crews also conduct other research projects including ocean wind studies, winter storm research, thunderstorm research, coastal erosion, and air chemistry flights.


Manned flights into hurricanes began in 1943 when, on a bet, pilot-trainer Colonel Joseph Duckworth flew a single-engine plane into a category 1 storm near Galveston, Texas. Since then, six military weather reconnaissance planes have gone down, at a cost of fifty-three lives. [1] [2] [3] In one such incident, six of the seven crew members of the Navy PB4Y-2 (BuNo 59415) were killed on October 1, 1945 when their plane went down in a Category 1 typhoon over the South China Sea. [4]

South China Sea A marginal sea of the Pacific Ocean from the Karimata and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan

The South China Sea is a marginal sea that is part of the Pacific Ocean, encompassing an area from the Karimata and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan of around 3,500,000 square kilometres (1,400,000 sq mi). The sea carries tremendous strategic importance; one-third of the world's shipping passes through it, carrying over $3 trillion in trade each year, it contains lucrative fisheries, which are crucial for the food security of millions in Southeast Asia. Huge oil and gas reserves are believed to lie beneath its seabed.

Before satellites were used to find tropical storms, military aircraft flew routine weather reconnaissance tracks to detect formation of tropical cyclones. While modern satellites have improved the ability of meteorologists to detect cyclones before they form, aircraft are able to measure the interior barometric pressure of a hurricane and provide accurate wind speed information–data needed to accurately predict hurricane development and movement.

Satellite Human-made object put into an orbit

In the context of spaceflight, a satellite is an artificial object which has been intentionally placed into orbit. Such objects are sometimes called artificial satellites to distinguish them from natural satellites such as Earth's Moon.



The Air Force Reserve 53d Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, the world's only operational military weather reconnaissance unit, is based at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi; most weather recon flights originate there. The term "hurricane hunters" was first applied to its missions in 1946.

Keesler Air Force Base United States Air Force base in Biloxi, Mississippi, USA

Keesler Air Force Base is a United States Air Force base located in Biloxi, a city along the Gulf Coast in Harrison County, Mississippi, United States. The base is named in honor of aviator 2d Lt Samuel Reeves Keesler, Jr., a Mississippi native killed in France during the First World War. The base is home of Headquarters, Second Air Force and the 81st Training Wing of the Air Education and Training Command (AETC).

Biloxi, Mississippi City in Mississippi, United States

Biloxi is a city and one of two county seats of Harrison County, Mississippi, United States. The 2010 United States Census recorded the population as 44,054, and in 2016 the estimated population was 45,975. The area was first settled by French colonists.

The USAFR hurricane hunters fly weather missions in an area midway through the Atlantic Ocean to the Hawaiian Islands, and have on occasion flown into typhoons in the Pacific Ocean and gathered data in winter storms.

Hawaiian Islands An archipelago in the North Pacific Ocean, currently administered by the US state of Hawaii

The Hawaiian Islands are an archipelago of eight major islands, several atolls, numerous smaller islets, and seamounts in the North Pacific Ocean, extending some 1,500 miles from the island of Hawaiʻi in the south to northernmost Kure Atoll. Formerly the group was known to Europeans and Americans as the Sandwich Islands, a name chosen by James Cook in honor of the then First Lord of the Admiralty John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. The contemporary name is derived from the name of the largest island, Hawaii Island.

Pacific Ocean Ocean between Asia and Australia in the west, the Americas in the east and Antarctica or the Southern Ocean in the south.

The Pacific Ocean is the largest and deepest of Earth's oceanic divisions. It extends from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Southern Ocean in the south and is bounded by Asia and Australia in the west and the Americas in the east.

The 53d WRS hurricane hunters operate ten Lockheed WC-130J aircraft, which fly directly into hurricanes, typically penetrating the hurricane's eye several times per mission at altitudes between 500 feet (150 m) and 10,000 feet (3,000 m).

NOAA Hurricane Hunters

The civilian and NOAA Corps crew members of the NOAA Hurricane Hunters, until recently based at the Aircraft Operations Center at MacDill AFB, in Tampa, Florida, mainly perform surveillance, research, and reconnaissance with highly instrumented aircraft including airborne Doppler weather radar measurements in both Atlantic and Pacific storms. In June 2017 , the Hunters moved in to a new facility at Lakeland Linder Airport in Lakeland, Florida, after being at MacDill since 1993. They fly two Lockheed WP-3D Orion aircraft, heavily instrumented flying laboratories modified to take atmospheric and radar measurements within tropical cyclones and winter storms, and a G-IV Gulfstream high-altitude jet above 41,000 feet (12 km) to document upper- and lower-level winds that affect cyclone movement. The computer models that forecast hurricane tracks and intensity mainly use G-IV dropsonde data collected day and night in storms affecting the United States.


View of the eyewall of Hurricane Katrina taken on August 28, 2005, by a NOAA P-3. Hurricane Katrina Eye viewed from Hurricane Hunter.jpg
View of the eyewall of Hurricane Katrina taken on August 28, 2005, by a NOAA P-3.

Among the types of aircraft that have been used to investigate hurricanes, are an instrumented Lockheed U-2 flown in Hurricane Ginny during the 1963 Atlantic hurricane season. Other types include the A-20 Havoc, 1944; B-24, 1944–1945; B-17, 1945–1947; B-25, 1946–1947; B-29, 1946–1947. WB-29, 1951–1956; WB-50, 1956–1963; WB-47, 1963–1969; WC-121N 1954–1973; WC-130A, B, E, H, 1965–2012.

The idea of aircraft reconnaissance of hurricane storm trackers was put forth by Captain W. L. Farnsworth of the Galveston Commercial Association in the early 1930s. Supported by the United States Weather Bureau, the "storm patrol bill" passed both the United States Senate and United States House of Representatives on June 15, 1936. [5]

1943 Surprise Hurricane

The 1943 Surprise Hurricane, which struck Houston, Texas, during World War II, marked the first intentional meteorological flight into a hurricane. It started with a bet.

That summer, British pilots were being trained in instrument flying at Bryan Field. When they saw that the Americans were evacuating their AT-6 Texan trainers in the face of the storm, they began questioning the construction of the aircraft. Lead instructor Colonel Joe Duckworth took one of the trainers out and flew it straight into the eye of the storm. After he returned safely with navigator Lt. Ralph O'Hair, the base's weather officer, Lt. William Jones-Burdick, took over the navigator's seat and Duckworth flew into the storm a second time.

This flight showed that hurricane reconnaissance flights were possible, and further flights continued occasionally. In 1946, the moniker "Hurricane Hunters" was first used, and the Air Force and now Air Force Reserve have used it ever since.


Lockheed WP-3A Orion weather reconnaissance aircraft of VW-4 Squadron at its NAS Jacksonville Florida base in 1974 Lockheed P-3 WP-3A 150496 VW-4 JAX 06.74 edited-2.jpg
Lockheed WP-3A Orion weather reconnaissance aircraft of VW-4 Squadron at its NAS Jacksonville Florida base in 1974

The United States Navy's VW-4 / WEARECORON FOUR Weather Reconnaissance Squadron Four, "Hurricane Hunters" was the seventh U.S. Navy squadron dedicated to weather reconnaissance. They flew several types of aircraft, but the WC-121N "Willy Victor" was the aircraft most often associated with flying into the "eye of the storm." The squadron operated WC-121s between late 1954 and 1972. [6] VW-4 lost one aircraft and crew in a penetration of Hurricane Janet, [7] and another to severe damage in a storm, but the severely damaged Willy Victor (MH-1) brought her crew home, although she never flew again. During 1973–1975, VW-4 operated the turbine-propeller Lockheed WP-3A Orion.

Swan 38

In 1974, a newly converted WC-130 (serial number 65-0965) was transferred to the 54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, the "Typhoon Chasers", at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. The aircraft was sent to investigate Typhoon Bess. The crew departed Clark Air Base in the Philippines with the callsign "Swan 38".

Radio contact with the aircraft was lost on 12 October 1974, apparently as the aircraft was heading into the typhoon's eye to make a second position fix. There were no radio transmissions indicating an emergency on board, and search teams could not locate the aircraft or its crew. All six crew members were listed as killed in action. [8]

Swan 38 was the only WC-130 lost in a storm.

Hurricane Katrina

The landfall of Hurricane Katrina on 29 August 2005 devastated Keesler Air Force Base, home of the 53d WRS. The equipment and personnel of the squadron were flying out of Dobbins Air Reserve Base near Atlanta. Despite heavy equipment losses, the squadron never missed a mission from the National Hurricane Center. The 53d has since returned to Keesler.

A reality television series featuring the USAFR 53d WRS, entitled Hurricane Hunters, debuted on The Weather Channel in July 2012. [9]

See also

Related Research Articles

Project Stormfury

Project Stormfury was an attempt to weaken tropical cyclones by flying aircraft into them and seeding with silver iodide. The project was run by the United States Government from 1962 to 1983.

Lockheed WP-3D Orion

The Lockheed WP-3D Orion is a highly modified P-3 Orion used by the Aircraft Operations Center division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Only two of these aircraft exist, each incorporating numerous features for the role of collecting weather information. During hurricane season, the WP-3Ds are deployed for duty as hurricane hunters. The aircraft also support research on other topics, such as Arctic ice coverage, air chemistry studies, and ocean water temperature and current analysis.

Lockheed WC-130 weather reconnaissance version of the C-130 Hercules

The Lockheed WC-130 is a high-wing, medium-range aircraft used for weather reconnaissance missions by the United States Air Force. The aircraft is a modified version of the C-130 Hercules transport configured with specialized weather instrumentation including a dropsonde deployment/receiver system and crewed by a meteorologist for penetration of tropical cyclones and winter storms to obtain data on movement, size and intensity.

53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron unit of the United States Air Force

The 53d Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, also known by its nickname, Hurricane Hunters, is a flying unit of the United States Air Force, and "the only Department of Defense organization still flying into tropical storms and hurricanes." Aligned under the 403d Wing of the Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) and based at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, with ten aircraft, it flies into tropical cyclones in the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the Central Pacific Ocean for the specific purpose of directly measuring weather data in and around those storms. The 53d WRS currently operates the Lockheed WC-130J aircraft as its weather data collection platform.


A dropsonde is an expendable weather reconnaissance device created by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), designed to be dropped from an aircraft at altitude over water to measure storm conditions as the device falls to the surface. The sonde contains a GPS receiver, along with pressure, temperature, and humidity (PTH) sensors to capture atmospheric profiles and thermodynamic data. It typically relays these data to a computer in the aircraft by radio transmission.

Joint Typhoon Warning Center

The Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC) is a joint United States Navy – United States Air Force command located in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The JTWC is responsible for the issuing of tropical cyclone warnings in the North-West Pacific Ocean, South Pacific Ocean, and Indian Ocean for all branches of the U.S. Department of Defense and other U.S. government agencies. Their warnings are intended for the protection of primarily military ships and aircraft as well as military installations jointly operated with other countries around the world.

Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star Airborne early warning and control aircraft based on the Constellation airframe

The Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star was an American Airborne early warning and control radar surveillance aircraft used from the 1950s by the United States Navy and United States Air Force.

Typhoon Tip Pacific typhoon in 1979

Typhoon Tip, known in the Philippines as Typhoon Warling, was the largest and most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded. The forty-third tropical depression, nineteenth tropical storm, and twelfth typhoon of the 1979 Pacific typhoon season, Tip developed out of a disturbance within the monsoon trough on October 4 near Pohnpei. Initially, a tropical storm to the northwest hindered the development and motion of Tip, though after the storm tracked farther north, Tip was able to intensify. After passing Guam, Tip rapidly intensified and reached peak sustained winds of 305 km/h (190 mph) and a worldwide record-low sea-level pressure of 870 mbar on October 12. At its peak strength, Tip was the largest tropical cyclone on record, with a wind diameter of 2,220 km (1,380 mi). Tip slowly weakened as it continued west-northwestward and later turned to the northeast, in response to an approaching trough. The typhoon made landfall in southern Japan on October 19, and became an extratropical cyclone shortly thereafter. Typhoon Tip's extratropical remnants continued moving east-northeastward, until they dissipated near the Aleutian Islands on October 24.

1971 Pacific hurricane season hurricane season in the Pacific Ocean

The 1971 Pacific hurricane season began on May 15, 1971, in the east Pacific, and on June 1, 1971, in the central Pacific. It ended on November 30, 1971. These dates conventionally delimit the period of time when tropical cyclones form in the east Pacific Ocean.

1953 Pacific typhoon season typhoon season in the Pacific Ocean

The 1953 Pacific typhoon season has no official bounds; it ran year-round in 1954, but most tropical cyclones tend to form in the northwestern Pacific Ocean between June and December. These dates conventionally delimit the period of each year when most tropical cyclones form in the northwestern Pacific Ocean.

Typhoon Bess (1974) Pacific typhoon in 1974

Typhoon Bess, known in the Philippines as Typhoon Susang, was responsible for the disappearance of a United States Air Force weather reconnaissance aircraft. Developing out of a poorly organized system on October 8 to the east of the Philippines, Bess featured two centers of circulation. Initially the southern low was monitored; however, a low to the north soon became the dominant center. Tracking generally west-northwestward, the storm gradually intensified before striking northern Luzon as a minimal typhoon on October 11. Temporary weakening took place due to interaction with land. After moving back over water the following morning, Bess regained typhoon intensity. This was short-lived though, as conditions surrounding the cyclone soon caused it to weaken. Now moving due west, the weakening storm eventually struck Hainan Island as a tropical storm on October 12 before diminishing to a tropical depression. The depression briefly moved back over water before dissipating in northern Vietnam on October 14.

Robert Simpson (meteorologist) American meteorologist

Robert Homer Simpson was an American meteorologist, hurricane specialist, first director of the National Hurricane Research Project (NHRP) from 1955–1959, and a former director (1967–1974) of the National Hurricane Center (NHC). He was the co-developer of the Saffir–Simpson Hurricane Scale with Herbert Saffir. His wife was Joanne Simpson.

Tropical cyclone observation

Tropical cyclone observation has been carried out over the past couple of centuries in various ways. The passage of typhoons, hurricanes, as well as other tropical cyclones have been detected by word of mouth from sailors recently coming to port or by radio transmissions from ships at sea, from sediment deposits in near shore estuaries, to the wiping out of cities near the coastline. Since World War II, advances in technology have included using planes to survey the ocean basins, satellites to monitor the world's oceans from outer space using a variety of methods, radars to monitor their progress near the coastline, and recently the introduction of unmanned aerial vehicles to penetrate storms. Recent studies have concentrated on studying hurricane impacts lying within rocks or near shore lake sediments, which are branches of a new field known as paleotempestology. This article details the various methods employed in the creation of the hurricane database, as well as reconstructions necessary for reanalysis of past storms used in projects such as the Atlantic hurricane reanalysis.

The Hurricane Research Division (HRD) is a section of the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) in Miami, Florida, and is the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) focus for tropical cyclone research. The thirty member division is not a part of the National Hurricane Center but cooperates closely with them in carrying out its annual field program and in transitioning research results into operational tools for hurricane forecasters. HRD was formed from the National Hurricane Research Laboratory in 1984, when it was transferred to AOML and unified with the oceanographic laboratories.

403d Operations Group

The 403d Operations Group is the operational flying component of the United States Air Force Reserve 403d Wing. It is stationed at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi.

54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron

The 54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron is an inactive United States Air Force unit. Its last assignment was to the 41st Rescue and Weather Reconnaissance Wing at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, where it was inactivated on 30 September 1987.

Weather reconnaissance

Weather reconnaissance is the acquisition of weather data used for research and planning. Typically the term reconnaissance refers to observing weather from the air, as opposed to the ground.

1st Weather Reconnaissance Squadron

The 1st Weather Reconnaissance Squadron is an inactive United States Army Air Force unit. It saw service between April 1943 and May 1945. On 21 December the squadron was inactivated at Grenier Field, New Hampshire.



  1. or empty |title= (help)
  2. "Hurricane Hunters: Nine 'brave' aircraft that need all nine lives". Archived from the original on 4 October 2015. Retrieved 4 October 2015.
  3. Masters, Jeffrey. "Hunting Hugo". Wunderground. Retrieved October 28, 2012.
  4. "The Lost Hurricane Hunters 1: October 1st, 1945" Weather Underground
  5. Associated Press. "Storm Patrol Bill Passed to President" Hurricane Archive[ dead link ] Retrieved on 2008-06-06.
  6. Marson, 1982, p. 318
  7. Garland, Harlin (October 1966). "U. S. Navy Hurricane Hunters". ESSA World. Environmental Satellite Services Administration: 7.
  8. Robison, Tom "Whiskey-Charlie!" Air Weather Reconnaissance Association website. Retrieved on 2008-09-26.
  9. Official website for the TV series