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Flying With The Hurricane Hunters

Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi is home to some of the most courageous pilots in the world. The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron is the only one of its kind. They are known as Hurricane Hunters, and they fly directly into the storms that threaten our lives. With Hurricane Season just days away, Meggan Gray climbed onboard one of the new C-130Js for a training mission, and found out just how these brave airmen keep us safe.

The Spirit of Gulfport sits on Keesler's runway, perched for take-off. One by one, the massive propellers start to turn. It's a C-130J -- an important weapon when it comes to tracking Hurricanes. There are ten here on base -- enough for Keesler's Hunters to fly 3 storms at once.

It takes five people to fly a mission. Each person carries out a specific, and vital job. Lt. Col Jon Talbot is a Weather Reconnaissance Officer with the 403rd, which basically means he is a flying meteorologist.

He says, "This is an exciting job for a weather guy, because we get to see the other side of the table. You know, instead of sitting down making a forecast, we get to come experience it."

Sitting beside Lt. Col. Talbot in the belly of the plane, is Tech Sgt. Darryl Bickham.

"My job as a load master is to load and unload cargo," explains Bickham. "Plus, I'm responsible for passengers if we have any, and the weight and balance of the plane pre-flight and assist the pilots whenever they need help on anything."

The pilots are Captain Sean Cross and Major Darryl Woods. Between them, they've flown storms for 13 years. Both tracked Katrina, and both agree, the journey to the eye of a storm can be a bumpy ride.

Captain Cross says the easiest way to describe it, is to "Think of the worst turbulence you've ever flown in and then multiply that probably by 4 or 5. And if you were sitting in the back of the airliner, I guarantee your tray table and your drink and food would probably be on the top of the plane."

Captain Cross says each storm has a personality of its own, so you have to be prepared for anything.I asked Maj. Woods if that ever made him nervous.

"I'm not afraid of hurricanes. But I have a healthy respect for the weather we're about to fly through. I mean, you definitely think about it," says Woods. It may not be dressed for comfort, but each C-130J is built strong enough to fly into the heart of some of the most ferocious storms, but more importantly has the technology to keep us at home safe.

Lt. Col. Talbot says, "Basically this airplane is a flying computer. This screen here, this is our main data screen where all our data that's collected about once every second comes into the airplane. I coordinate with the guy over there, our dropsonde operator, to drop instruments, not only when we go through the eye, but in the eye wall."

Tech Sgt. Bickham is in charge of dropping those instruments.

"This is what we call a dropsonde, sonde for short. It has a GPS transmitter in it, and it also has sensors in it that we get data from."

Data like pressure, temperature, and wind speed, which goes directly to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. That information helps save lives. Captain Cross says that's why he likes his job.

"We know we're actually making a difference during storm season. We know we're actually helping people because the accuracy in forecasts is increased by 30 percent."

And this season, Hurricane Hunters will be armed with new technology that will give them even more accurate information about the storms they're tracking.

Talbot says, "This is going to be an exciting piece of new equipment. It's called a microwave radiometer, a step frequency."

Mounted on the plane's wing, it uses micro-waves to constantly measure how fast the wind is blowing at the surface -- 10,000 feet below the plane.

"And that's going to be a big, big -- Make a big difference in intensity forecasting of hurricanes and make a big difference to the folks that have to provide the warnings to the public."

And that will help save more lives, and money when it comes to ordering future evacuations.

Here's something I bet you didn't know. Hurricane Hunters don't just fly Hurricanes. In fact, from December to April, crews are tasked to fly winter storms.

The 53rd Squadron is also responsible for transporting wounded soldiers and military cargo. They'll even be helping out with the upcoming presidential race by carrying limousines and secret service -- so they stay busy year-round.

by Meggan Gray

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