As Hurricane Matthew, an extremely powerful Category 4 major hurricane, bears down on the Northeastern Florida coastline, a small fleet of aircraft battles the elements to collect essential data from inside the storm.
Established in 1944 as the U.S. Air Force 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, today's "Hurricane Hunters" squadron operates on assignment to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Each Hurricane Hunter mission lasts approximately 10-hours as the aircraft transits to and from station and collects data from their target.
The question many people are starting to ask is; "why in the age of unmanned aviation are we still sending manned aircraft into the eye of a hurricane?"
“The Hurricane Hunters have a fantastic, 70-year history and I enjoyed my years flying as a crew member,” says Jeffrey Long, a former U.S. Air Force Hurricane Hunter Dropsonde Systems Operator. (A dropsonde is a tube-like device that’s dropped from an aircraft into a storm to collect data about it.) “But, I can't see manned recon flights lasting much more than 10 more years. I just hope they're not decommissioned much sooner. I think the NOAA aircraft—Kermit, Miss Piggy, and Gonzo—would be the last to go, but we might see a phased drawdown in the 10 Air Force WC-130 Hurricane Hunter aircraft with a drone replacement.”
In 2014, scientists successfully sent an unmanned aircraft—a kind of surveillance probe known as the Coyote—into a hurricane churning above the Atlantic Ocean. These drones, deployed from a regular NOAA P-3 aircraft and directed by the pilots on board, are able to glide to just above the ocean surface, where they can determine a hurricane’s structure and intensity.
If unmanned aircraft eventually replace the Hurricane Hunters of today, one thing that may be lost is the actual human experience of flying into the storm. “The experience of flying through a hurricane is nearly impossible to describe,” Long said. “I was a young man when I flew into hurricanes and I certainly couldn't describe the unbelievable beauty of any storm after I landed back then. Today, I don’t think I’m that much closer to being able to do so, either.”