The Officer January/February 2013 : Page 33

INTO THE STORM AIR WHILE HER CONCERNS ARE FOR THOSE ON THE GROUND. | BY CAPT NICOLE MITCHELL, USAFR, 53RD WEATHER RECONNAISSANCE SQUADRON Long before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, before it was barely a mention on the news, I was watching it, wondering what it would do, and wishing I were, literally, in the storm. I’m a weather of cer with the 53 rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Miss., better known as the Hurricane Hunters. We’re the Air Force Reserve members who f y into storms, but I was going to be watching Hurricane Sandy from the sidelines. T rough a combination of scheduling, fairness (I had f own Hurricane Isaac earlier in the year), and limited man-day money early in the f scal year, I sat home and watched the action, knowing my colleagues who were f ying were in for a historic storm. Most civilians who hear what I do for the military think it’s either awesome or crazy. It’s probably a little of both, but I absolutely love it—from seeing Mother Nature at work f rsthand to knowing how important our work is in contributing to the safety of people along our coastlines. T e data we collect is critical. Over water, there isn’t as much meteorological data as for storms over land. So, we f y right into tropical systems and not only f nd the exact center of the storms, which gives a more accurate starting point for the forecasts, but we collect crucial data such as wind, pressures, and temperatures. All of this goes directly to the staf at the National Hurricane Center so that they have both a good idea of the current conditions and trends, and data to go into the computer models that help in forecasting storm track and intensity. Some estimate our data improves the forecast by 30 percent, saving millions of dollars and countless lives. It’s certainly not a job for everyone. While some storms can be calm, you can also get anything from nonstop turbulence to hail, lightning strikes, even tornadoes forming in the eyewalls we f y through—especially when the storms start to move over land. For example, in a tropical storm a few years ago, the plane I was in took a lightning strike that knocked out its radar. We had to f y out of the storm blind, trying to miss the worst of the weather. It can also be grueling work. Our storm f ights average 10 hours (not including mission prep and debrief), but this can vary greatly. We typically spend about f ve to six hours inside a storm, so the duration of our f ights depends in large part on how far away a storm is. If it is near the base we are launching from, it might be what we would consider a short six-hour f ight. When a longer f ight is required to get to a storm, our missions can last more than 13 hours, guaranteeing a 16-hour day, usually in odd shif s around the clock that knock your sleep cycle completely out of whack. Even with all of that, I absolutely love the job. Af er you’ve f own enough storms, sometimes they start to blend together, and it can be hard to remember specif cs of a particular storm. Hurricane Irene that hit the East Coast in 2011 is already a little like that for me. It took a check of my logbook to remember that I had three dif erent Irene THE O FFICER / J ANUARY –F EBRUARY 2013 33

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