RICHFIELD, Ohio—Yesterday was overcast, chilly, 44 degrees, with light gusts from an approaching front. If a meteorologist would have been reporting the weather, he might have used the fancy term “BRRRRRR.”
Elderly Bud Wisnieski sat in a chair in his driveway, observing the weather. Weather-watching is in his blood. He was draped in warm blankets, wearing a jacket.
He heard something in the distance. Honking horns. Whoops and hollers. Shouting. Cheering. It was getting louder. The motorcade started on the horizon, then it rolled right past his house.
There were fire trucks, squad cars, and antique vehicles, spit-shined to a glow. The parade was led by a police escort. Vehicles were decked out in red-white-and-blue banners. People all shouted the same thing:
“Happy 100th birthday, Bud!”
Bud has been quarantining due to the coronavirus pandemic, but it didn’t dampen his spirits. He waved until his arm was sore. Between waves, he kept tabs on the weather. Old habits die hard.
He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II as part of a unique outfit. A weather reconnaissance squadron.
You don’t hear much about the old weather squadrons from the Army Air Corps days. They weren’t the glittery crews who got all the attention, but they altered history. In fact, some believe these airmen helped win the war.
Take, for example, the 3rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. That name might not mean much to you. But if you live on the Gulf Coast, it will.
The squadron later became the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. Most people call them the “Hurricane Hunters.” And that’s exactly what they are.
The 53rd Squadron began on a dare. It was a warm July day in 1944 when an easy going Georgia boy named Joe Duckworth was dared to pilot a plane through a hurricane.
Duckworth was just gutsy enough to do it. He flew his AT-6 Texan training aircraft directly into the eye of the storm. People thought he was nuts. And he might have been. But he became the first man to ever fly through a hurricane.
I could go on and on about Lt. Col. Duckworth, and about how he was the pioneer of modern instrumental aviation, but I can see you yawning over there. So I’ll get down to business.
The reason I bring up the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron is because they are still flying through hurricanes, but they still don’t get tons of attention for it.
Maybe this is because they aren’t TV personalities. They aren’t fast-talking, flashy meteorologists who use enough hair product to deflect small caliber bullets. They are a humble lot of airmen, based in Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi.
The crew is comprised of reserve-citizen airmen. Meaning: These guys work nine-to-five jobs in the civilian world. They are forecasters, meteorologists, or commercial airline pilots. But when a storm is brewing, they become heroes.
You might never hear about them, but during a tropical storm, while the whole world is watching hairspray-covered TV personalities, the 53rd Squadron is firing up their WC-130J Super Hercules and heading directly into Hell.
To give you an idea of what I mean: Last year the squadron was in the air for 684 hours, completing 80 missions. They flew through monster storms like Andrea, Barry, Dorian, Fernand, Humberto, Jerry, Karen, Lorena, Nestor, and Olga.
“This is my career and passion,” says Maj. Douglas Gautrau, 53rd WRS aerial reconnaissance weather officer. “Especially in hurricane season.”
I’ll bet you’re wondering why it’s necessary to send a high-wing medium-range aircraft into a storm when today we have modern weather equipment like NASA satellite cameras, advanced microwave scanning radiometers, and Jim Cantore.
Chief Navigator, Lt. Col. John Fox gives an explanation: “The satellites provide a good map picture. But our data helps develop a street map, if you will. A weather forecast is between 25 and 30 percent more accurate with our data.”
But let’s cut to the chase. I speak for everyone in the continental United States when I ask, “What is it like flying through the eye of hurricane?”
“From a pilot’s perspective,” says Lt. Col. Dena Williams, “it kinda goes against everything that we are trained for, which is, avoid weather, avoid weather. You don’t know what to expect because every storm is different.”
Maj. Gautrau describes the inside of the hurricane like a football stadium made of clouds, with serene sunshine above, calm water below.
Tech. Srgt. Karen Moore, says it another way: “In that moment, when I go out to that plane, it’s game on. You have tornadoes, excessive rain, you have ice, and lightning, we’ve been struck by lightning.”
It’s fascinating how the work of this tightly knit squadron saves millions of people each hurricane season. It’s even more fascinating how they sometimes go overlooked. As a resident of the Gulf Coast, I wish I could thank them all personally. Not just for the lives they save, but for being so brave.
After all, in some ways life itself is like a big fat hurricane. A little beautiful, a little terrifying. It can splinter your home, destroy everything you love, and uproot the biggest trees. But sometimes there’s no other way to get through Hell than to fly right through the storm, and simply pray you don’t pee your pants in mid-air.
Bud Wisnieski spent a full day waving to passing cars. When it was all over, someone asked the old man how it felt to turn 100. He glanced at the Ohio cloud formations above him. He smiled. His face a little reddened from the cold.
He said, “It feels great. I think I’ll try for 200.”
I think you should, Bud.