Hurricane Hunters Track Storms

Monday, July 31st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BILOXI, Miss. (AP) — Technical Sgt. Scott Persinger describes one of nature's most destructive wind-driven beasts as ``absolutely gorgeous.''

Then again, Persinger's job requires him to get a closer view of hurricanes than the average person.

As a member of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, known as Hurricane Hunters, Persinger flies into the eye of the always destructive, sometimes deadly storms.

His mission: obtain information that pinpoints the storm's location and shows the direction it's moving.

``When we have a storm threatening land, we couldn't do our job properly without them,'' said James Franklin, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Since hurricane season began June 1, there have been few storms to observe, and Persinger is missing the thrill he gets as he flies through a cloud wall.

``My first storm was Hurricane Hugo. I was real anxious to get in and fly it. After I did it the first time, I just loved it,'' Persinger said of the 1989 hurricane. ``You get inside the eye of the storm and it's absolutely gorgeous. You look straight up and you see beautiful, blue sky.''

He's also aware of a storm's ability to turn cities and towns into rubble. His squadron was the first to land with supplies on the Caribbean island of Antigua after it was struck in 1995.

``We saw houses that used to be on a hilltop on one side of the runway that were now on the other side of the runway,'' Persinger said.

Persinger, 35, is one of about 120 reservists who track hurricanes in the Air Force's WC-130Hs. Their work helps save lives as well as federal and private dollars. Studies show a typical hurricane warning costs nearly $1 million a mile. The squadron's data help improve the forecast accuracy by about 25 percent.

In this case, the human factor is even better than technology. Franklin said his agency relies heavily on satellites, but the information is not as precise that provided by the hunters.

``There's nothing we can see from satellite technology that can replace the reconnaissance aircraft — not for the next 10 years or so,'' Franklin said.

Hurricane Hunters, based at Keesler Air Force Base for the past 27 years, was first activated in 1944 as the 30th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Gander, Newfoundland. Since that time, the operation has been shuffled from base to base, and had its number of active personnel reduced.

Half of the squadron members are traditional reservists, whose day jobs range from firefighters to teachers to computer programmers. The squadron is authorized 20 aircrews, made up of six people each.

Persinger and Val Hendry are two of the full-time reservists.

Hendry, one of five female hurricane hunters, has been in 50 named storms. She said she was a natural for the job because ``I always loved flying and was a meteorology major.''

When she's not in the eye of a hurricane, Hendry keeps busy with the squadron's Web site, which according to ``Popular Science'' magazine, was one of the top 50 sites in the world.

Persinger's official job is to launch the dropsonde, a device dropped into the eye to record temperature, relative humidity and winds per second. That data is used to determine the intensity of the hurricane and where it may make landfall.

``I know that it's a lot of people out there counting on this every time it comes in, so it has to be precise,'' Persinger said.

Persinger has been in the squadron since 1988, but it wasn't until recently that his wife became concerned about the dangers involved in his job.

``She never worried about my job until we went to see 'A Perfect Storm,''' a movie about a fishing crew killed in a powerful confluence of weather forces.

``I kind of wished I hadn't taken her,'' said Persinger, who actually flew in the eye of Hurricane Grace, one of the weather systems on which the film is based, in 1991.

Persinger said the storm was only moderate in comparison to others he's flown, such as Hurricane Hugo and Hurricane Mitch. He said turbulence in those storms sometimes gave him a scare.

Capt. Joseph Roche, one of the traditional reservists, says he's not easily bothered by the storms. Roche, who earns a living flying passenger planes, flew in four different storms last year — his first with the squadron.

``It's not a big deal,'' Roche said. ``Most of the time it's not that bad.''


On the Net:

Hurricane Hunters:

National Hurricane Center: