The 2017 hurricane season has been one of the most devastating in recent memory, with Harvey dumping historic amounts of rain on Texas, Irma devastating Caribbean islands and forcing Floridians to take part in one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history, and Maria causing massive infrastructure damage to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Recovery efforts will be going on for weeks, months, and years.

Largely, residents of the communities affected and politicians alike have praised the organization and effectiveness of response efforts. Early responders were a varied bunch–from local police and National Guardsman to sleep-deprived healthcare workers, and even fellow residents.

But, it might be argued, the very first on the scene were those who braved the hurricanes while they were still well out at sea. The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (53rd WRS) Hurricane Hunters flew at minimum 10 missions into the eyewall of Hurricane Harvey before it made landfall, collecting crucial data on wind speeds, directionality, barometric pressure, and the exact size and location of the storm’s center.

The data they gathered helped meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center (NHC) and across the country to understand the power and trajectory of the storm, in part making possible those “spaghetti models” that project possible paths of a storm. More importantly, such data informs communities on the ground about how to respond. Governors can declare states of emergency, mayors can issue evacuation orders, National Guardsmen can prepare to mobilize—to list a few.

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Who They Are and What They Do

Made up of approximately 40 pilots along with numerous other personnel based out of Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, the 53rd WRS is equipped to fly as many as three reconnaissance missions simultaneously and is ready to respond within 16 hours’ notice of a mission.

According to one metric, the data the Hurricane Hunters collect is as much as 30 percent more accurate than other data sources, such as satellites. This can make a huge difference for communities and emergency managers on the ground who must decide quickly how to respond to a storm’s threat.

In 2012, as the massive Hurricane Sandy set its sights on the Northeast Coast of the U.S., 53rd WRS crewmembers were flying missions into the storm. At the time, Maj. Sean Cross, an Aircraft Commander, highlighted the crucial role he and his crewmembers play:

“We are the eyes and ears of the forecasters on the ground. We will fly this storm up until the very last second that it makes landfall so that the absolute latest information is available to those forecasters. Better information quite literally means saving lives.”

Flying specially equipped WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft, a typical mission lasts approximately 11 hours and can cover as many as 3,500 miles. While two pilots and a navigator work out a path into the storm at a typical altitude of about 5,000-10,000 feet, the Aerial Reconnaissance Weather Officer analyzes atmospheric data collected by the plane’s instruments to refine the flight path. Once the plane has reached the storm’s eyewall, the dual-hatted Loadmaster and Dropsonde Operator, “drops a sonde,” a measuring device similar to a weather balloon, except that it descends from a parachute.

Data from the dropsonde and numerous other instruments is sent in real time via satellite to the NHC, which uses it to refine its forecasting models and passes the information on to the emergency management community and the general public.

Notwithstanding the Hurricane Hunters’ expertise and familiarity with these missions, the flights are dangerous and turbulent. One pilot described flying into a hurricane as something like going through a carwash with gorillas jumping on your car. Despite the dramatic nature of the flights, the Hurricane Hunters’ safety record has been extraordinary. They haven’t had a serious accident since 1974, when six crewmembers of the now-defunct 54th WRS were lost at sea during a reconnaissance flight in the South China Sea.

Hurricane Hunters fly research missions into atmospheric rivers

Master Sgt. Erik Marcus, 53rd WRS loadmaster, prepares a dropsonde during a flight into Hurricane Harvey Aug. 24, 2017 out of Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Heather Heiney)

Origins in a Dare

In 1943, as the Surprise Hurricane threatened Texas, a group of American and British pilots at an Army instrument flight school in Bryan, Texas argued about the capabilities of the planes they were flying. Some of the British pilots claimed that the training aircraft at the flight school, the AT-6 Texan, wasn’t well-enough equipped to withstand a flight through the approaching storm.

Lieutenant Colonel Joe Duckworth took up the challenge, and grabbing his favorite navigator, headed off for the eye of the hurricane. With a successful return, hurricane hunting was born. This mission proved the viability of storm reconnaissance, and a year later the 3rd WRS, precursor to the 53rd, began their hurricane hunting duties.

While it may be impossible to quantify the number of lives or disaster relief dollars they may have saved over their more than 70-year history, one thing is clear: The Hurricane Hunters are an intrepid bunch, occupying the front lines of potentially catastrophic storms to inform our preparation and response.