A US Air Force Reserve Command WC-130J Hurricane Hunter Hercules aircraft visited Grand Cayman on Wednesday.
The visit was part of a six-day, six-city tour in the Caribbean region to raise public awareness of the Atlantic Hurricane threat.
In addition to a large crew from the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron – better known as the Hurricane Hunters – the visiting group included Bill Proenza, the director of the National Hurricane Centre in Miami who took over the post from Max Mayfield in January.
The Caribbean tour is not the first time Mr. Proenza has been up in a Hurricane Hunter.
‘I spent three years with the Hurricane Hunters,’ he said, adding that one of the storms he flew through during that time was Hurricane Betsy, as strong Category 4 storm that hit The Bahamas, Florida and Louisiana.
Although the C-130 is no longer the primary aircraft used by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration for hurricane reconnaissance – it now uses two WP-3D Orion aircraft – Mr. Proenza said it was a good aircraft for flying through storms.
‘It’s particularly good because you can slow down the plane, which makes it a less bumpy ride in turbulence,’ he said.
The Hurricane Hunter aircraft is a standard C-130 that has only been modified with various weather gear. Last December, the C-130 became one of only three aircraft in the world that have marked 50 years of continuous used.
The visiting crew also included Lieutenant Colonel Floyd Plash, who has been with the Hurricane Hunters squadron since 1988, having been a US Air Force pilot before that.
Although he had flown through heavy weather before joining the Hurricane Hunters, he had never flown into a hurricane.
‘The first time I was apprehensive, not knowing what to expect,’ he said.
Now, with after nearly 20 years of experience of flying through hurricanes, Lt. Col. Plash does not think it so bad – at least most of the time.
‘Every storm is different,’ he said. ‘Some are not so bad and others are quite bad.
‘Some are bad because of lightning, some are bad because of the winds and some are bad because of turbulence.’
During day flights, the pilots can see very little except for clouds all around them. This changes when they fly through the eye of a hurricane, where it is often brilliantly clear and calm. Contrary to what many believe, however, not all eyes of hurricane are clear.
‘Sometimes they have clouds in them,’ said Lt. Col. Plash.
Night flights are sometimes more difficult, especially when there is a lot of lightning.
‘It can get very bright when there is a lot of lightning at night,’ said Lt. Col. Plash.
Hurricane hunters normally fly through hurricanes at an altitude of 10,000 feet; however there can be variations depending on a particular storm’s form.
Lt. Col. Plash said the Hurricane Hunter aircraft normally stay in the hurricane for six hours, which allows the crew to get two location fixes on the storm for National Hurricane Centre advisories.
‘Sometimes it’s six hours of getting knocked around, sometimes it’s six hours of smooth flying and sometimes we’re only getting knocked around in the [cloud] bands,’ he said.
Typically, the ride is roughest in the northeast quadrant of a hurricane, but Lt. Col. Plash said it isn’t always the case.
Depending on how long it takes to reach the storm, flights can last up to 12 hours.
The Hurricane Hunters will normally go to investigate a storm once it has crossed a longitude of 55° west, but only if it is a threat to land. Otherwise, they wait for the system to get closer.
Although the squadron is based in Biloxi, Mississippi, it will move aircraft around from time to time. During the Atlantic hurricane season, some aircraft might fly to St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands to be closer to approaching storms.
During the winter months, part of the squadron will move to the Pacific Ocean to track storms there. This year they flew out of Anchorage, Alaska. Next year they will fly out of Hawaii.
The Hurricane Hunters will also do reconnaissance on winter storms like the Nor’easter that hit the east coast of the United States this week.
During Wednesday’s visit, members of the public, including many school children took the opportunity to walk on board the Hurricane Hunter and hear a presentation by Lt. Col. Richard Harter.
One thing people found out is that there is some risk involved in being a Hurricane Hunter.
‘We’ve never lost an airplane in this squadron, but a squadron in the Pacific lost a plane in 1972,’ he said. ‘We have had some people hurt in turbulence.’
Lt. Col. Harter said that one time a member of the crew who did not have a seatbelt on at the time hit the roof of the aircraft when it hit some turbulence and had sustained a bad cut on his head.
Another time, an aircraft was hit by lightning and the bolt went right through the length of the fuselage. Still, Lt. Col. Harter likes his job.
‘It’s dangerous, but it is fun,’ he said.