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Hurricane Hunters Track Gustav on Katrina Anniversary

By Air Force Tech. Sgt. James B. Pritchett
Special to American Forces Press Service

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss., Sept. 2, 2008 – Hurricane Hunters from the Air Force Reserve's 403rd Wing here spent the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina flying into yet another tempest, Hurricane Gustav, which made landfall yesterday just west of Grand Island, La.

Three years ago, the Hurricane Hunters evacuated aircraft and personnel from this Gulf-Coast base to forward operating locations, where they continued flying into Katrina to provide the National Hurricane Center with critical data used by forecasters to make warnings to areas in the path of the storm.

Crews watched from 10,000 feet as the pounding surf and pulverizing winds destroyed the Mississippi Gulf Coast, including their homes, businesses and those of their friends and family. In the days following Katrina, the citizen-airmen of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron continued flying missions, never missing a single tasking.

Officials deployed the 403rd Wing’s fleet of WC-130J and C-130J aircraft to forward operating locations last month when Tropical Storm Fay threatened heavy winds across the Gulf Coast. Aircraft remained in place as follow-on taskings called for them to fly missions into Hurricane Gustav and another recently developed system, Tropical Storm Hanna.

Any time a tropical system threatens the U.S. coastline or those of U.S. interests in the Atlantic, Pacific and Caribbean basin, the Hurricane Hunters fly around-the-clock missions.

Tasked by the National Hurricane Center, the Hurricane Hunters flew several missions into Gustav, pinpointing the location of the center of the storm and providing real-time data to forecasters via satellite communication.

Information relayed to the National Hurricane Center helps forecasters to narrow warning areas by more than 30 percent. With increased accuracy in the forecast, the likelihood that people in those areas will heed watches and warnings also improves.

This year, all 10 state-of-the-art WC-130J aircraft are equipped with the stepped-frequency microwave radiometer, which allows airmen on board to measure surface winds directly below the aircraft constantly. The SFMR, affectionately known as the "Smurf," also can determine rainfall rates within a storm system. This, in addition to wind speed measurements at flight level, provides structural detail of the storm.

Already this season, the Smurf has given forecasters significantly more data to feed into their models and provided more accurate surface-level wind data not always available in the past.

Having the Smurf on board is the most important advancement for this season, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Jon Talbot, chief aerial reconnaissance weather officer for the Hurricane Hunters. With the full capability to provide surface wind speed data, the unit gives National Hurricane Center forecasters the most accurate surface wind speed information prior to landfall.

"This translates into more accurate warnings for the public," he said.

(Air Force Tech. Sgt. James B. Pritchett serves in the 403rd Wing Public Affairs Office.)

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