The Hurricane Hunters remain busy throughout the winter months

Weather Stories

When it comes to tropical systems, you probably think of the Hurricane Hunters. But did you know their work continues even when the tropics go quiet?

“Our mission certainly runs year-round. A lot of people think ‘Oh the Hurricane Hunters, they’re only busy in the summertime’ and that’s just not true. We stay busy all year-round.”

Captain Ryan Smithies is a pilot for the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, also known as the Hurricane Hunters. Although he has plenty of flights under his belt during hurricane season, he also has experience flying into winter storms for those same regions. 

Photo by Senior Airman Kristen Pittman, 403rd Wing/Public Affairs

“We’re looking at the Pacific side and the Atlantic side in the wintertime just like we are during hurricane season. It varies year to year a little bit. Sometimes they’re not as active. But in general, our area of responsibility still remains the same as it does during hurricane season,” says Captain Smithies. 

In a hurricane mission, their goal is to fly to the center of a storm. For a winter mission, they take a different approach.

“In a winter storm, as you know, those storm systems cover a much larger area and are atmospherically a little bit different. And so in many ways, our winter storm mission is very similar to what the NOAA Gulf Stream mission is in the hurricane season where they’re flying higher altitudes and taking a much larger cross section of the atmosphere to fill a broader gap in the data.”

Photo by Master Sgt. Jessica Kendziorek, 403rd Wing/Public Affairs

The information they gather is used for both real-time analysis and for the weather models. Captain Smithies says the more information they can gather over a larger area, the better datasets they can provide. 

Although the weather conditions they fly in are vastly different, the number of crew members remains the same. The Hurricane Hunters even use the same equipment no matter the mission. 

“We use a lot of the same instruments on board that we do in the hurricane mission. We even use the same dropsondes that we drop in hurricanes and the eye of a storm. We use those same dropsondes for the winter storm mission.”

Photo by Senior Airman Kristen Pittman, 403rd Wing/Public Affairs

Flying into hurricanes can pose problems; flying into a winter storm brings another set of issues.

“Icing is always a big issue. We’re dealing with much colder temperatures at higher altitudes, the planes handle differently. You have to worry about things like fuel-freezing temperatures. So, there’s deicing involved and different procedures that we aren’t necessarily use to here on the Gulf Coast during hurricane season.” 

After coming off a historic hurricane season, it can be tough when you have to jump right into the next mission. There is also local training and other tasks the crews must complete in between those missions. Although the hours can be long, Captain Smithies knows there is an eventual break in the forecast. 

Photo by Senior Airman Kristen Pittman, 403rd Wing/Public Affairs

“We know that it’s not always going to be that high tempo. At some point we’ll get the relief and some downtime. So, in the meantime, we just have to get through the grind.” 

The hours may be long and the time between missions may be short, but Captain Smithies and his crew are always ready no matter the season. 

“Our mission is weather reconnaissance at baseline. So, whether it’s a hurricane in the summertime or a big Nor’easter in the middle of February going up the New England coastline, or a big Pineapple Express atmospheric river event in California, we stay busy for sure.” 

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