By Tech. Sgt. James B. Pritchett, 403rd Wing Public Affairs

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE MS 12/28/2005 — The “Hurricane Hunters” of Air Force Reserve Command's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron flew their last mission of the record 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Season in December.

The squadron's aircrews flew more than 145 missions into 25 storms and logged more than 1,500 flight hours. They did this while flying a new aircraft and operating from another base.

The hurricane season typically runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. But this year the season started early. The unit flew into Hurricane Adrian in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Central America in the third week of May. In early December, squadron aircrews flew into Hurricane Epsilon — the season’s 14th Atlantic hurricane and only the fifth December storm recorded in more than 120 years.

The unit met another milestone, flying every mission in the new WC-130J Hercules. This ushered in a new era in weather reconnaissance for the Hurricane Hunters, who are part of the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base MS. “We completed conversion to the J-model two years ahead of schedule,” wing commander Brig. Gen. Richard R. Moss said. “This is the culmination of a lot of work enabling the WC-130J to perform its mission.”

General Moss said his crews are excited about the new aircraft that improve the unit’s ability to provide data to forecasters and decision makers when it is most needed. Increased situational awareness of the crew and the increased safety of the J-model's performance enhance the unit's ability to locate and monitor the intensity of these dangerous storms.

Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Hurricane Hunters' home Aug. 29, provided the unit’s biggest challenge. When the massive storm crashed into the Gulf Coast, it caused widespread damage to facilities and infrastructure at Keesler and in the surrounding communities. Many of the unit's facilities sustained damage, some of it severe, including the wing's headquarters. It is estimated that repairs will cost between $30 to $40 million.

The wing evacuated its aircraft before the storm and continued flying reconnaissance missions from Ellington Field, near Houston.

Initial damage assessments in Mississippi made it clear the wing's aircraft would not be able to return home immediately. While many reservists and civilians working for the 403rd returned to begin cleanup, the aviation mission moved to a temporary location at Dobbins Air Reserve Base GA and continued supporting the hurricane reconnaissance mission without a single missed tasking. More than 200 people went to Dobbins, and at least 25 percent of them suffered severe loss or total destruction of their homes — but they knew the importance of keeping the mission going.

After the hurricane season, these Hurricane Hunters were not through flying. Before the season ended, the unit was already tracking winter storms to help forecasters determine the severity of Nor'easters and other winter weather activity off both coasts.