Hurricane Hunting started on a dare in the middle of World War II, when Lt Col Joe Duckworth took an AT-6 Texan training aircraft into the eye of a hurricane. Our squadron traces its heritage back over 50 years, to the 3rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, Air Route, Medium on August 7, 1944. From the very beginning, the squadron began a globe-trotting tradition, with aircraft spread from Canada to Florida to the Azores.
B-17 FLYING FORTRESS
The Fortress was the most often requested aircraft for weather reconnaissance in WWII. In Sept. 1945, the 53rd was the first squadron to intentionally fly a B-17 into a hurricane. Hurricanes soon became their primary mission, and henceforth the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron has been known as the Hurricane Hunters.
The scattering of the squadron's planes around the globe was required by the very nature of the responsibilities assigned to the organization. During this early period, the unit scouted the weather over large geographical areas: remember, this was in the days before satellites! Day after day, squadron planes collected data which were transmitted to weather stations for use in preparing forecasts required for the Air Force and the U.S. Weather Bureau.
A medium bomber, the Mitchell saw more different types of missions than any other army aircraft in World War II. One such unusual mission started in 1944, when four B-25s were assigned to the "Army Hurricane Reconnaissance Unit", a forerunner of today's Hurricane Hunters.
In addition to its routine reconnaissance work, the 53rd also flew many missions to collect data in hurricanes. It eventually acquired the nickname, "Hurricane Hunters," which was painted on the unit's aircraft and buildings.
Hurricane missions were flown by the 53rd during the dangerous seasons of 1946 and 1947, and again during the 1951-54 hurricane seasons. In these post-World War II years, a national plan to collect hurricane warning information was gradually evolved by the Air Force, Navy, and the Weather Bureau.
The U.S. Weather Bureau began an around-the-clock hurricane warning service on June 16, 1947. All tropical storms and hurricanes were given alphabetical names (Able, Baker, Charlie, etc.) beginning with the 1947 season for internal identification in the Weather Bureau. These names were issued to the public during the 1950-52 hurricane seasons and were later given the names of women beginning in 1953.
During 1947, the 53rd conducted an experiment (in cooperation with the Weather Bureau) in which particles of dry ice were sprayed into the clouds associated with a hurricane. The experiment was conducted to determine whether the particles would diminish the intensity of the storm. The results were not conclusive.
After 1947, the Navy performed reconnaissance in the Caribbean while the 53rd tracked hurricanes in the West Central Atlantic. The squadron only survived for a few years in the post-war drawdown, and was inactivated for nearly three and a half years.
Weather reconnaissance got a big boost when it inherited surplus bombers after WWII. This was the Air Force's largest aircraft, and in 1950, became the first to be designated with a "W" for weather service. The 53rd scored other "firsts" with the Superfortress: in 1946, it was the first to fly into the top of a hurricane, at 22,000 feet (tops of clouds 36,000 feet).
The squadron came back to life on February 21, 1951, in Bermuda. After the majority of the squadron moved to Burtonwood AFB, England, in February, 1954, one flight continued to operate from Bermuda until May, 1955.
In addition to its normal weather and hurricane reconnaissance roles, the 53rd remained active with a Christmas tradition that began in 1953. Since daily flights of the squadron extended to the far north, children of squadron personnel requested that their fathers take along letters to Santa Claus.
The word of these deliveries spread and letters from all parts of Great Britain poured in to the 53rd in 1954. Beginning with the Christmas of 1955, letters from all parts of Western Europe came to the 53rd for delivery to Santa.
By 1955, the WB-29s had a lot of corrosion and were replaced by the WB-50. It looked very similar to the WB-29, except its 3500-horsepower engines required a larger tail to stabilize it, so the WB-50 was five feet taller. It could also fly 850 miles further. The WB-50 had an important role during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when it
monitored the weather around Cuba to plan photo-reconnaissance flights. Although weather flying was considered a "peacetime" mission, the aging WB-50s took their toll, and claimed 66 lives in 13 accidents over their 10-year history in weather.
The 53rd is no stranger to restructuring and reductions in force. On March 18, 1960, the Air Force discontinued the squadron for a year and a half. The nomadic squadron rose again in Kindley Field, Bermuda, soon moved to Georgia for several years, and then set up shop in Puerto Rico for seven years.
This was the only jet to fly the hurricane mission, certainly higher and faster than any aircraft in our inventory. It flew for 10 years, from 1963-73. However, fast is not necessarily better in hurricane work; just as you slow down to drive over a speed bump, aircraft are flown as slow as possible in turbulence. For that reason, the WB-47 could not penetrate the interior of a hurricane, but skirted the edges of the storm.
After Hurricane Camille devastated the Gulf Coast in 1969, congressmen began work to bring the Hurricane Hunters closer to the Coast. In 1973, the squadron moved to their current home, Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi.
The venerable C-130 Hercules first joined weather recce in 1963. At last, using this sturdy, pressurized aircraft, crews could penetrate a hurricane without getting soaked by the heavy rain! The "B" and "E" models of the WC-130 flew many years, and the "H" model continues to fly today. These "Herks" are now over 30 years old, but have proved to be the most dependable of all the aircraft in the pages of weather history.
In 1975, a new contender in the exclusive "hurricane hunting" mission arrived: the Air Force Reserve! The 815th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, "Storm Trackers" was born from a tactical airlift squadron just down the street from the 53rd, and soon both units were sharing the bulk of the hurricane missions (with NOAA flying a few of the storms as well). They soon became well-respected counterparts to the active-duty 53rd.
The 53rd finally succumbed to budget cuts in 1991, and the Air Force Reserve picked up the entire hurricane hunting mission.
The 815th temporarily became a dual-hatted squadron, and flew both storm and tactical airlift (cargo) missions. By 1993, however, the unit split into two squadrons, at which time the tactical airlift squadron reverted to the 815th TAS Flying Jennies.
The weather squadron resurrected the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, and now proudly carries on the tradition as the Hurricane Hunters.
3d Weather Recon Sq, Air Route,
Presque Isle, Maine
7 Aug 44
North Atlantic Division
53d Strategic Recon Sq,
Kindley Field, Bermuda
22 Jan 51
18 Mar 60
53d Weather Recon Squadron
Kindley Field, Bermuda
8 Jan 62
30 Jun 91
53d Weather Recon Squadron
Keesler AFB, MS
1 Nov 93
Air Force Reserve