Meet Air Force hurricane hunters who fly into eye of storms

Flying through storms like 'riding a roller coaster through a car wash'

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – The men and women in the U.S. Air Force who fly through the eye of hurricanes are improving the accuracy of storm forecasts at a great risk while dealing with what feels like a being on a roller coaster.

Major Grant Wagner jokes that as a navigator on an Air Force WC-130 Hurricane Hunter plane, the crew might need their heads checked a few times after riding the roller coaster that is the eye of a hurricane. 

There are just 10 WC-130 aircraft in the world that can fly into the heart of a hurricane.

"It ranges anywhere from a bad commercial flight you might complain about a little bit to sometimes people compare it to riding a roller coaster through a car wash," Wagner said.

However, the information from the eye of the storm they can provide to the National Hurricane Center is priceless.

"We are able to give real-time data in the storm that satellites can't pick up and find the absolute center of the storm and pass that along in real time to the National Hurricane Center," Wagner said.

The hurricane hunters said every storm is unique, just like its name.

Col. Brian May, the commander of the Air Force WC-130 Hercules, said the smaller storms are the ones he likes least because they are less predictable.

"Mother Nature is a woman not to be reckoned with," May said. "I'll tell you that."

Col. Brian May commander of the Air Force WC-130 Hercules

Chief Pilot Lt. Col. Jeff Ragusa has been flying through hurricanes for more than than 15 years. He said the hunters take a low and slow approach through the storms for two reasons.

"One: We are in the data-gathering business, we want to go slow to get as much data as we can," Ragusa said. "Also, there is a speed -- every airplane has one -- where the wings will stay on. We really like that speed, so we fly that."

The Hurricane Hunters are flown low because the crew aboard wants to see what's going on at the bottom of the storm, what people back on the ground will be facing.

The crew uses a canon to shoot about 30 dropsondes into the storm that send back information via satellite to the airplane every few minutes. When the dropsondes are shot out, the devices collect temperature, humidity, pressure, GPS, wind speed and direction data all in 15 minutes before they drop into the ocean.

That data takes about 20 minutes to get back to the National Hurricane Center, Ragusa said.

A dropsonde loaded into a canon ready to take data from a hurricane as it drops through the eye of the storm.

Lt. Cmdr. Rebecca Wattington pilots the Air Force Gulfstream Four, nicknamed Gonzo, after the daredevil "Muppets" character.

Wattington said she was always fascinated by weather. With her background in meteorology, she said wanted to study weather in person, and there is no place better to do that than in the middle of the storm.

The hurricane hunting is paying off.

"In fact, this year, they are shrinking that forecast cone you are used to seeing and that has a lot to do with the data we are collecting," Wattington said.

May said the greatest payoff is when people listen to the warnings that come from the information they collect.

"Thank you guys for getting the data out there," May said. "If I am taking the time to fly into these storms, my family thanks you all for heeding the warning that comes from the data we collect."

When one WC-130 aircraft lands after about a six-hour mission, another one is heading out.


About the Authors:

From chasing tornadoes and tracking the tropics, to forecasting ice storms and other dangerous weather, Troy Bridges has covered it all! Troy is an award-winning meteorologist who always prepares you for the day ahead on the News 6 Morning News.