Flying Into The Storm – “Hurricane Hunters” Transition Into Winter Storm Missions


These stunning photos were captured by one of the pilots as the Hurricane Hunters flew just above the Nor’easter that tracked up the East Coast last week. A similar effect as terrain enhancement, caused lenticular looking clouds as air rose above cumulonimbus clouds as the storm was gaining strength.

Ever wonder what it’s like to fly into a hurricane or winter storm??  Well I got the opportunity to talk to Captain Jonathon Brady of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, otherwise known as the “Hurricane Hunters” after he flew into both Sandy and last week’s Nor’easter (their first winter storm mission of the season). Last week’s potent Nor’easter marched up the East Coast just a week after the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast were pounded by Sandy. The Nor’easter brought near hurricane force winds and dumped heavy snow across the already battered region.  So many of you may be asking, what is a Nor’easter?  Below is the definition from the National Weather Service:

“A strong low pressure system that affects the Mid Atlantic and New England States. It can form over land or over the coastal waters. These winter weather events are notorious for producing heavy snow, rain, and tremendous waves that crash onto Atlantic beaches, often causing beach erosion and structural damage. Wind gusts associated with these storms can exceed hurricane force in intensity. A nor’easter gets its name from the continuously strong northeasterly winds blowing in from the ocean ahead of the storm and over the coastal areas.”

The Hurricane Hunters main mission is to fly into tropical systems (hence the name), but in more recent years they have started flying into Nor’easters and pacific winter low pressure systems over the ocean. Hurricane Hunters fly into tropical cyclones and winter storms alike, due to lack of data over the open water. Yes, there are buoys that provide observations and ships as well, but the amount of data compared to that over land is far less.  To gain a better understanding of tropical or winter storms, The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron fly in and around them collecting data. During the Hurricane Season, which for the Atlantic Basin officially begins June 1st and ends November 30th, Hurricane Hunters fly through storms as warranted by the National Hurricane Center (NHC).  On the contrary, during the Fall and Winter, the Hydrometeorological Prediction Center (HPC) requests missions into Winter storms.  According to Captain Brady, the way Hurricane Hunters fly into winter storms is much different than flying into tropical systems.

“There is a big difference with the hurricanes we fly a lot lower level 5-10,000 feet and we go straight through to the core of the system and measure as we go, where winter storms we fly as high as possible above the area and we’ll do a big pattern around where the area of low pressure is developing an we’ll drop weather sondes from as high as we can get”

The dropsondes Hurricane Hunters release, collect valuable data as they fall through the atmosphere such as; temperatures, pressure, humidity and wind, that forecasters can use to put into computer models and provide more accurate forecasts. Below is an image from the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) of a dropsonde developed at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) used by the Hurricane Hunters.

Source: ©UCAR. Photo by Carlye Calvin.

As Hurricane Season winds down and comes to end, the transition to winter storm missions will increase. To learn more about the Hurricane Hunters and what they do, click here:

– Jennifer Watson

Twitter: @JWatson_Wx

Facebook: Jennifer Watson WHNT