Will Simmons has trained for almost two years to fly his first mission. Now, he just has to wait for favorable liftoff conditions—strong winds, heavy rain and an approaching storm.
A broadcast meteorologist turned Air Force Reserve first lieutenant, he hasn’t entirely departed from his first career choice. In fact, one could argue that he’s now taking it to its extreme.
A 2011 Mississippi State University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in geosciences, Simmons is one of 120 members of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi. When he finally flies a live mission, it will take him into the eye of a hurricane.
Called “hurricane hunters,” members of the 53rd deploy into hurricanes, tropical storms and typhoons in the Atlantic, Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico to collect information that the National Hurricane Center uses to track a storm’s path, intensity and projected rainfall.
Since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts in 2005, Simmons said hurricane hunters have helped provide more accurate information about hurricanes, thus saving lives.
“That’s a big reason why I wanted to join,” said Simmons, who came to the 53rd in 2013 after a two-year stint as the morning meteorologist for WCBI in Columbus. “I loved my job, but this allows me to be a part of a more hands-on application.”
Fellow Bulldogs, Majs. Christopher Card and Phillip Dobson, both navigators with the squadron, have already collectively logged more than 30 storm missions.
Dobson, who has served with the 53rd since 2008, has navigated more than 90 flights through hurricanes in the last seven years. He explained that at minimum a team of five—including two pilots, a navigator, a loadmaster and a weather officer—take a C-130 aircraft into storms.
Upon arrival, the plane, typically flying at about 10,000 feet, crosses the eye of the storm several times while the loadmaster releases instruments, called drop sondes, into the hurricane. Equipped with radio transmitters, those instruments measure dew point, temperature, wind pressure and other key indicators as they fall, usually taking about four minutes to reach the ocean’s surface.
Dobson said the team stays in contact with the National Hurricane Center to get feedback on how many drop sondes are needed to collect the most accurate data. That data helps the center predict where a storm will make landfall and quickly get information to areas that need to evacuate.
“We give a really dynamic platform for the hurricane center to get out the best information,” Dobson said.
In only his second year with the 53rd, Card said he has flown missions in the Pacific to track storms that threatened the Hawaiian islands. He also navigated for a team that flew into Tropical Storm Bill in May, as it threatened more rainfall for the already saturated Houston area.
Most notably, Card said he endured an arduous, 11 and a half hour mission through Hurricane Erika in August, when the C-130 “used every bit” of its 59,000-pound fuel load.
“People ask all the time what these missions are like, and it depends,” Card said. “Every experience is different.”
When all goes according to plan, as Dobson said it typically does, the long flights bring with them the requisite turbulence of hurricane-force winds, but that’s just another day at the office for hurricane hunters. However, it only takes once to remind them how unpredictable a force of nature can be.
In summer 2014, Dobson said his team flew into Tropical Storm Arthur as it was strengthening into a Category 1 hurricane. At the edge of the storm, the plane encountered a spin-off tornado and briefly stopped responding to input commands.
“That was a pretty stressful situation,” Dobson said. “We continued to operate according to our training, and it all worked out. Fortunately, the issue only lasted a few seconds.”
Dobson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in forestry in 2000 and an MBA in 2009, served eight and a half years on active duty, including tours in Afghanistan, before joining the 53rd. He said he first became interested in hurricane hunting when he was stationed in Pensacola, Florida, as a flight instructor in 2004, just weeks after Hurricane Ivan had battered the Florida coast.
“There were parts of Pensacola that looked a lot like parts of Afghanistan I had just left,” he said. “So I’ve seen how severely an area can be impacted by these kinds of storms.”
For Card, a 2005 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in history, stories about the “crazy guys who flew into hurricanes” piqued his interest. After he left active duty, which also included multiple tours in Afghanistan, he decided hurricane hunting wouldn’t be a bad gig.
“When we tell people what we do, some people just look at us with blank stares,” Card said. “Most often, I guess I get the question, ‘Aren’t you scared?’ I guess it can be scary, but it’s not nearly as scary as being shot at in Afghanistan.”
Simmons said he first heard about hurricane hunting when members of the 53rd visited one of his meteorology classes. Though the process joining the squad took longer than he expected, he said he’s excited about embarking on his first flight and feels it will be well worth the wait.
Rather than haze Simmons, their greener Bulldog compatriot, with horror stories to shake his nerves, the more experienced Card and Dobson joked that they’d rather let nature do the talking.
“The storm will take care of that for us,” Dobson said.
Story by Zack Plair