Air Force’s ‘hurricane hunters’ seek new tech to enhance weather recon missions

Due to increased demand for weather reconnaissance and advancements in data collection capabilities, the 53rd WRS are on a path to integrating new and enhanced systems onto their aircraft.
The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron has returned to its roots with a return to a vintage paint scheme and 'Weather' markings on the tail flash. The first of ten WC-130J Super Hercules have returned after getting the new glossy paint and sits next to the tactical gray painted version at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, April 5. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. Jessica Kendziorek)

ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT OVER THE ATLANTIC OCEAN — In the cargo compartment of a WC-130J “Weatherbird” flying off the coast of New Jersey, Air Force reservist Master Sgt. Shane Hogue loads a small, nondescript tube into a launch chute. From there, the device drops from the plane and falls through the atmosphere at about 2,500 feet per minute.

Seconds later, a collection of red, blue, green and purple dots begin to appear and accumulate on Hogue’s computer screen. Each color represents different types of weather data being collected by sensors and GPS equipment attached to the falling tube, which is called a dropsonde, during its descent into the ocean 20,000 feet below.

As the crew’s loadmaster, Hogue does a quality control check of the data — which includes air pressure, temperature, dew point, GPS position and wind speed and direction — before sending it to a different, high-powered computer run by Maj. Chris Dyke, a reservist and aerial reconnaissance weather officer sitting next to him.

Dyke then uses a specialized computer program to do his own analysis of weather data collected by the dropsonde and other sensors onboard the aircraft, preparing it to be sent to forecasters who will use it to predict weather conditions and patterns.


The flight was a demonstration of a typical mission conducted by the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (WRS), an Air Force Reserve unit based out of Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. The Weatherbird flew through clear skies that day in April, but the crew is used to much more extreme flying conditions — from high-speed winds to intense precipitation.

Also referred to as the “Hurricane Hunters,” the 53rd WRS serves as the service’s only aerial weather reconnaissance capability. The Air Force Reserve has 10 full-time crews and 10 part-time crews — along with 278 maintainers and 57 other support positions — dedicated to the unique mission, which is critical to the United States’ ability to study and accurately forecast incoming storms.

Due to increased demand for weather reconnaissance and advancements in data collection capabilities, the 53rd is on a path to integrating new and enhanced systems onto its aircraft that will increase the amount, quality and types of data it collects during storms — as well as the speed at which it can send the information to weather forecasters.

“Our sensing requirements are increasing. As technology is improving and as the models are getting better, we have different data requirements,” Dyke told reporters ahead of the flight. “A forecast model is only as good as the data that goes into it, so we have to adapt and change to those systems as new technologies improve and as sensing requirements change.”

‘Certainty out of uncertainty’


While the systems and methods used by the 53rd have changed since their mission started over three decades ago, the Hurricane Hunters’ overall goal has largely remained the same.

The reserve squadron is tasked to fly their WC-130Js through storms over the ocean, allowing on-board sensors and computers to collect direct measurements of weather events in real-time. That data is fed to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center in Miami and automatically integrated into global numerical weather prediction models the center uses to predict the movement, size and intensity of storms.

The mission is one of the only ways to collect weather data that allows for local and federal emergency management organizations to adequately prepare ahead of dangerous conditions, Dyke said.

Lt. Col. Tobi Baker, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron aerial reconnaissance weather officer, watches the dropsonde data on his screen during a flight into Hurricane Hilary in the Pacific. Hurricane Hilary is the first storm in over 80 years to impact Southern California directly. (U.S. Air Force photo by Jessica L. Kendziorek)

“Like any good reconnaissance mission, our job is to create certainty out of uncertainty,” he said. “We’ll go out and we’ll fly to areas where we find that the models don’t really know what’s happening, we’ll release dropsondes … and that will provide us a vertical profile of the atmosphere that we’ll send back to the models to provide that certainty.”


During the six-month hurricane season beginning June 1, data collected over the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean can improve weather prediction models by as much as 20 percent, Dyke said, adding that recent tweaks in sensing strategies have boosted that accuracy by another 10 to 15 percent.

For the November to April winter storm season, the squadron flies routine missions through atmospheric rivers over the Pacific, which can cause torrential downpours of rain and snow on the West Coast. The 53rd’s winter storm season operations have improved forecasts by at least 30 percent from up to six days out, according to the Air Force.

Data collection is made possible by the computerized weather reconnaissance equipment on the WC-130Js, of which there are only 10 operating today. Driven by advancements in NOAA’s ability to model storms, the Air Force has around 22 different projects underway to enhance mission systems on the aging Weatherbirds.

Many efforts are focused on adding new sensors to the aircraft. Historically, the 53rd collected data that represented singular points of time. But advancements in sensing and communications technology means the squadron can now collect a continuous flow of data during flight, increasing the amount and type of information that is gathered and transmitted from the aircraft, an Air Force Reserve spokesperson told DefenseScoop in an email.

The service has already integrated two systems — stepped frequency microwave radiometers and airborne radio occultation devices — onto the aircraft. Both give the crew new remote sensing capabilities beyond what is collected by dropsondes, with the former able to continuously measure surface winds during flight and the latter able to use satellite data to build vertical profiles of some atmospheric parameters.


“While these remote sensing instruments are not replacements for in-site measurements, they offer new and unique data sets that allow us to understand more about what is happening in the environment on a given flight,” the spokesperson said.

In the future, the Air Force is looking to add a weather radar solely dedicated to 360-degree sensing around the aircraft, as well as a new package of dynamic sensor pods that can be changed between flights to meet specific user requirements, Dyke said. 

The 53rd is also on the hunt for new infrastructure that can support timely transmission of more high-resolution data. Dyke compared the transition to “operating off of dial-up internet compared to broadband.”

The squadron plans to add new satellite communications radios before the end of 2024 that will allow data to be transmitted via integrated waveforms and the Space Force’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), according to a chart provided by the Air Force Reserve. It will also integrate a wideband satellite connectivity capability in 2025 to “facilitate a transition from discrete observations at specific points in time to continuous flow of data from a variety of sensors,” the chart noted.

Striking a balance


Although the 53rd wants to modernize their WC-130Js as quickly as possible, the squadron is constantly competing with other mission areas for critical resources to do so.

Modernization funding is allocated in a pot called the National Guard and Reserve Equipment Appropriation (NGREA), which is split across both the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard. Due to varying priorities, Dyke indicated that the appropriations may not be enough to cover what the Hurricane Hunters need to fully modernize.

“While weather reconnaissance is number one on my list, we have great power competition happening, we have stuff going on with Russia and all over the place. So it’s a rack-and-sack, and the NGREA pot is only so big,” he said.

Maj. Gen. C. McCauley von Hoffman, deputy chief of the Air Force Reserve, said it can be a challenge for unique mission sets like the Hurricane Hunters to compete for funding against others across the service. This is compounded by the fact that Air Force Reserve units often operate side-by-side with their active-duty counterparts, meaning those platforms and mission systems need to be modernized at the same pace.

“In most of the ‘big’ Air Force, we think about the Indo-Pacific region and great power competition. But if you are governor of Mississippi, Alabama, Florida [or] Louisiana, you really care a lot about modernization of this platform,” von Hoffman told reporters during a briefing before the April flight.


To aid in that modernization, the 53rd wants to standardize as many systems on the WC-130J that it can. While the squadron has some capabilities specifically designed for the Weatherbird, it is trying to incorporate others that have already been approved for the standard C-130J, Dyke said.

“From a modernization standpoint and looking forward to the architecture, we’re trying to design [the platform] with flexibility in mind so we can capture that commonality of parts and be able to leverage the bigger [Air Force] in terms of sensing systems that have already been vetted,” he said.

Lt. Col. Jon Talbot, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron aerial reconnaissance weather officer, points to the eye of Hurricane Julio during a hurricane flight off the coast of Hawaii Aug 9. The 53rd WRS “Hurricane Hunters” aircrew and 403rd Wing maintenance personnel deployed to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii to fly storm missions into Hurricanes Iselle and Julio. The “Hurricane Hunters” fly storm missions in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans during the hurricane season which offically starts June 1 and ends Nov. 30 yearly. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Jessica Kendziorek)

Another strain on the 53rd’s plans to modernize is a rise in demand, with a significant amount of time and resources being allocated towards maintaining the current fleet of Weatherbirds as they fly more missions. Fiscal 2023 saw the Hurricane Hunters’ highest amount of flying hours in nine years, and the squadron is already on pace to meet or exceed that rate in fiscal 2024, Dyke noted.

The demand stems from a number of sources, including new modeling capabilities that require the squadron to fly into storms earlier and the addition of atmospheric river operations in 2020. Dyke also noted that changes in weather conditions are influencing how often the 53rd needs to fly.


“What I’ve noticed is, in looking at the data and looking at how we’re being tasked, there are a number of factors that are contributing to it — whether it’s advances in the technology, whether it’s advances in the research that allows us to look at the way that we fly a storm — and I’m certain that global patterns affect that as well,” he said.

Furthermore, the squadron must spread resources that were established in the 1990s — when they were only flying a six-month hurricane mission — across operations now spanning 10 months out of the year for both hurricane and winter storm seasons.

Dyke said the two-month period between seasons is spent “re-tooling” the WC-130J, “but to be honest, it’s not enough time for the aircraft.”

The strain hasn’t gone unnoticed by lawmakers, however. The 53rd is currently working with NOAA on a review of the program’s resources — required by the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act — to inform Congress on whether or not the mission is adequately funded through 2035.

Dyke said the report is in the final approval process.


“We’re looking for ways to expedite the modernization as much as possible, while at the same time ensuring that it meets the mission needs. It’s always a balance,” he said.

Mikayla Easley

Written by Mikayla Easley

Mikayla Easley reports on the Pentagon’s acquisition and use of emerging technologies. Prior to joining DefenseScoop, she covered national security and the defense industry for National Defense Magazine. She received a BA in Russian language and literature from the University of Michigan and a MA in journalism from the University of Missouri. You can follow her on Twitter @MikaylaEasley

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