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By Staff Sgt. Kristen Pittman
403rd Wing Public Affairs
After a historically busy Atlantic hurricane season in 2020, the Air Force Reserve’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron Hurricane Hunters at Keesler Air Force Base were given a relative reprieve, though it was still a busy hurricane season this year.
Nov. 30 marked the end of the Atlantic and Pacific hurricane seasons and for the second year in a row, the Atlantic tropical basin produced a full list of named storms. Eight of those storms made landfall in the U.S. with two making landfall as hurricanes, one of those being a major hurricane in category 4 Hurricane Ida.
While both seasons got early starts in May with Tropical Storms Andres and Ana, The 53rd WRS, the Defense Department’s only unit tasked to flying into tropical systems to gather data, did not see its first action until a little over two weeks into the Atlantic season’s official start date of June 1, when they flew Tropical Storm Claudette as it threatened Louisiana and surrounding areas.
Following Claudette, the unit supported the National Hurricane Center by flying Danny, Elsa, Fred, Grace, Henri, Ida, Larry, Nicholas, Odette, Peter and Sam in the Atlantic and Nora, Pamela and Rick in the Eastern Pacific. They flew over 800 hours and 85 missions.
“In comparison to last year, this season was a breeze,” said Maj. Kendall Dunn, 53rd WRS pilot. “Between the significantly less storms flown, evacuations, and missions and being able to better navigate the COVID-19 pandemic; it almost felt back to normal.”
The squadron did spend a fair amount of time away from home forward operating out of places like Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida; St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands; and San Antonio, Texas.
“We’re always grateful for host bases and airports that allow us to set up, so we can fly missions from places that allow us the most possible time in a storm and therefore the most data for forecasters,” Dunn said.
Unlike the previous year when Keesler AFB found itself in the forecast cone four times, the 53rd, and their fellow flying unit, the 815th Airlift Squadron Flying Jennies, had to evacuate just once for Hurricane Ida, in late August.
“The importance of hurricane evacuations is two-fold,” said Lt. Col. Mark Withee, 53rd WRS navigator. “One, the threshold for taking off in crosswinds is fairly low for our aircraft, so to keep the mission going, it’s important that we’re not in an area that could be affected by these systems and deter a takeoff. Also, we evacuate all of the aircraft we can in order to avoid costly damage caused by strong winds that could render our aircraft, or the 815th’s, non-mission capable.”
Both seasons officially last until the end of November, but the squadron flew its final tasking Oct. 10 into a suspect area off the East Coast, a stark contrast from last year that saw them flying into multiple major hurricanes well into November.
“The season wrapped up a little early for us, but it’s important we train weekly to keep all of our aircrew up-to-date on qualifications and ready for a tasking should something pop up,” Withee said. “Plus, as hurricane season is ending, the National Winter Season Operations Plan comes into play, so we’re gearing up and making plans for that and of course maintenance is always working to make sure our aircraft are ready to go.”
“Hurricane Hunters” is somewhat of a misnomer, as the unit does not cease operations once hurricane season is over. The National Winter Season Operations Plan dictates a host of different types of missions including winter storm and atmospheric river reconnaissance and buoy drop missions that keep the unit busy from November through March.
“While there is a certain thrill in having a year like 2020, more work for us generally means more people impacted by storms, so we’re grateful both as a squadron providing this service and as residents of areas that often face potential impacts, that this season produced a lot less work for us,” Withee said. “And we look forward to continuing to provide data that will help people during the winter season as well.”