These girls' job is to hunt hurricanes

These girls’ job is to hunt hurricanes

By Dario Leone
Apr 6 2018
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Some little girls might dream about being princesses; but others dream about becoming a Hurricane Hunter and flying into the most powerful storms on earth

Maj. Devon Meister, pilot, and Maj. Ashley Lundry, aerial reconnaissance weather officer, are members of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, referred to as the Hurricane Hunters, which is a unit in the Air Force Reserve’s 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. In the following article, titled Women of Weather: Hurricane Hunters make a difference, Maj. Marnee A.C. Losurdo, 403rd Wing Public Affairs, tells their story.

Some little girls might dream about being princesses; but others dream about becoming a Hurricane Hunter and flying into the most powerful storms on earth.

Those goals became reality for Maj. Ashley Lundry, an aerial reconnaissance weather officer (ARWO), and Maj. Devon Meister, a pilot, both members of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (WRS), referred to as the Hurricane Hunters, a unit in the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi.

The 53rd WRS is the only Department of Defense unit that annually flies weather reconnaissance missions into severe tropical weather from Jun. 1 through Nov. 30, to gather data for the National Hurricane Center to improve their forecasts and storm warnings.

“It was my dream to fly though hurricanes since I was a little girl,” Lundry said. Her father, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and Navy pilot, influenced her career choice, she said. “I always thought weather was really cool, and my dad told me there were pilots who flew planes through hurricanes. He planted the idea that I could do it.”

And she did, but she served a stint in the U.S. Army and Air National Guard first. After serving 4 years as an Army logistics officer, she transferred to the Oklahoma Air National Guard in 2010 to serve as a weather officer. She attended the Weather Officer Course at Keesler AFB in 2010 and toured the 53rd WRS, which provided her an opportunity to inquire about future opportunities to serve in the squadron, she said. She transferred to the 53rd in 2014 and began her training to become a qualified ARWO.

For Meister, the path to become a Hurricane Hunter wasn’t a life-long goal like Lundry, but she knew she wanted a degree in mathematics, and the Air Force provided her the opportunity to do so, she said.

“I really liked math,” said Meister, who earned her degree from the University of South Florida in 2003. “And a good thing about a mathematics degree is that it opens a lot of doors for you in the military. At the time I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in the Air Force, but they needed weather officers. They sent me to get a second bachelor’s degree in meteorology at the U.S. Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, California, and I became a weather officer.”

Rescue assets ready for possible Hurricane Harvey response
A U.S. Air Force HC-130J Combat King II prepares to take off for Texas in preparation of possible hurricane relief support August 26, 2017, at Moody Air Force Base, Ga.

Meister also attended the Weather Officer Course at Keesler in 2004 and visited the Hurricane Hunters to learn about their mission.

“Ever since I went on that tour I wanted to be a part of the Hurricane Hunters,” Meister said.

However, Meister got the opportunity to become a pilot and took it. While in pilot training she found out her unit was losing its mission and had to find a job, so she called the 53rd WRS and was told that they had a pilot board the following month. She met that board and signed on as a Hurricane Hunter in November 2011.

Today, Meister is one of two female pilots in the squadron, one of 243 female pilots in the Air Force Reserve, and one of 728 in the entire Air Force. Lundry is one of four female ARWOs in the squadron, Air Force Reserve and Air Force as the 53rd WRS is the only unit that has this job.

It’s a unique mission, and with that mission comes unique challenges.

As a pilot, Meister and her counterparts fly into storms most pilots avoid.

“The biggest difference between being a pilot for the Hurricane Hunters versus another unit is we purposely fly into severe weather rather than avoid it; and there is no training for that,” Meister said.

In fact, the majority of the squadron’s training for pilots, navigators, ARWO’s and loadmasters is all conducted at home station and during operational missions, she said, as there is no formal schoolhouse.

“We are a student for multiple missions into a hurricane so we can experience the environment,” said Meister, who added it took her about two years of pilot training, C-130J specific qualification and on-the-job training to become proficient to fly through storms.

Meister, who has now flown into 52 storms and has more than 1,500 flight hours, said as a pilot, their role is to fly the weather officer into the storm.

53rd WRS track Hurricane Harvey
Maj. Kimberly Spusta, a 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron aerial reconnaissance weather officer, collects weather data for the National Hurricane Center during a flight into Hurricane Harvey Aug. 24, 2017 out of Keesler Air Force Base, Miss.

As one of 20 ARWOs in the Air Force, Lundry said due to this rare mission the ARWO training is done in-house as well, she said.

“We need actual storms to fly for training, so the hurricane season impacts how soon you can become fully qualified,” said Lundry, who added that it took about a year and she flew through 10 storms with 94 storm flight hours.

The squadron conducts two types of missions, low-level invests and fix missions. ARWOs direct the mission for both, said Lundry.

“And that’s unique to our mission,” Meister said. “The weather officer is telling the pilot where to go to get the best data, and then the navigator and pilots work together to ensure the crew will be safe flying into those conditions.”

A low-level invest mission is flown at 500 to 1,500 feet to determine if there is a closed circulation, and if there is a closed circulation they begin flying fix missions into the system, Lundry said. Once a system becomes a tropical storm or hurricane, the Hurricane Hunters begin flying at higher altitudes, ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 feet depending on the severity of the storm. Aircrews fly through the eye of a storm four to six times to locate the low-pressure center and circulation of the storm. During each pass through the center, they release a dropsonde, which collects weather data on its descent to the ocean surface, specifically gathering the surface winds and pressure.

During the invest and storm flights, the aircrews transmit weather data via satellite communication every 10 minutes to the National Hurricane Center (NHC) to assist them with their forecasts and storm warnings.

Some people may wonder why a person would want to do this job, but it was an easy decision according to Meister and Lundry.

“I want to make sure I’m spending my time on earth wisely; I want to do something that’s valuable,” Meister said. “The only tool that forecasters have for tropical cyclone prediction is satellite data; and that’s not enough because a satellite can’t tell you the exact center, wind speeds on the surface, and the central pressure of a storm. We have to fly into the storm to gather that data. Providing this data to the NHC and increasing their forecast accuracy is rewarding and important to me.”

53rd WRS airmen track Hurricane Hunters
The radar on a WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft shows the eye wall of Hurricane Harvey during a flight into the storm Aug. 24, 2017 out of Keesler Air Force Base, Miss.

Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Heather Heiney, Airman 1st Class Daniel Snider, Staff Sgt. Eric Summers Jr. and Sgt. Heather Heiney  / U.S. Air Force

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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