But Belcher, a software engineer, and his Robins Air Force Base co-workers significantly contribute to making those flights beneficial for weather forecasters trying to predict the nature, intensity, speed and likely path of tropical storms and hurricanes.
The Robins unit – some six software engineers, testers and configuration managers – provide the software used on-board the aircraft and by ground based stations tied to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Fla., and at Keesler. Robins assumed that mission from Lockheed Martin less than two years ago.
The on-board system – known as Weatherbird software – is critical to accurately assessing any storm threatening the mainland. The ground station input allows National Hurricane Center monitors to immediately see what the in-flight instruments are detecting.
“The software records all the data coming off the aircraft’s sensors in real time,” Belcher explained during a Tuesday interview. “It allows the weather operator on board the aircraft to define the exact center of a hurricane using wind speed and gives him the necessary course changes to guide the pilot to the storm’s exact center. It also allows them to track movement of the storm, dew point and barometric pressure. They can even detect surface wind speeds by reviewing the wave tops.”
Hurricane hunting is conducted by the Air Force Reserve Command’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at the Mississippi installation. Some ten WC-130J aircraft are equipped with palletized meteorological, data-gathering instruments to conduct the tedious mission.
On a normal tasking, the aircraft will make four passes at an approaching hurricane, each at 90-degree angles … creating a double-X pattern flown in opposite directions. Each pass is at 10,000 feet or lower and always over water.
Although that sounds dangerous, flying into the teeth of a hurricane is less harrowing than you might think, Belcher noted.
“I’ve talked to some of the pilots and they say it’s not as bad as it sounds,” he said. “A commercial airliner flying at 35,000 feet often flies into a 250 knot wind. The winds aloft are high anyway. But the (hurricane hunters) just happen to be flying at a lower altitude than I would like.”
Probing tropical depressions and other storms is actually more dangerous because they are generally flown at altitudes of 1,000 feet or less.
“They fly at extremely low altitudes because they need to be at the surface to detect whether the storm is starting to rotate,” the software engineer said.
Belcher and the Robins team are in constant contact with the hurricane hunting unit, although software changes and updates generally occur after the storm season is over. Two types of issues usually emerge – software defects and the desire for updates and changes.
“Most of their guys are weathermen and not engineers,” the Robins expert noted. “They often don’t see how changing something might affect everything else. So we have to go back and forth with them so that we and they fully understand what is going to happen. It’s a complicated piece of software.”
Once changes are specified and accomplished, the Robins team does the basic testing on base.
“But we don’t have the data inputs these things talk to,” Belcher said, “so ultimately the software changes need to be flight tested. That’s done at Keesler.”
The goal is to ensure aircrews and ground stations have everything they need before the next storm season. Hurricane hunters save lives and help avoid the huge cost of unnecessary evacuations and their role remains indispensable. Although satellite imagery will show the location, size and current direction of a storm, it does not offer the level of detail needed for more accurate prediction.
“(The hurricane hunters) provide data from inside the storm,” Belcher pointed out. “And that has a lot to do with the ability to predict which direction the storm will be going.”
The Robins unit is proud to be a part of the hurricane hunting team. They believe what they do makes a huge difference.
“I saw a statistic somewhere that said because they fly into a hurricane, we are 30 percent more accurate in predicting the strength and direction of a storm,” Belcher said.