Seventy-five years ago, on July 17, 1943, one Army Air Corps pilot dared another to fly his plane into the eye of a hurricane, and a new method of predicting storms and getting adrenaline highs was born.
Army Air Force Lt. Col. Joseph P. Duckworth flew an T-6 trainer aircraft into the eye of a hurricane headed to the Texas coast on a dare just to prove it could be done.
After the flight, he wrote,
“The only embarrassing episode would have been engine failure, which, with the strong ground winds, would probably have prevented a landing, and certainly would have made descent via parachute highly inconvenient.”
But the dare proved fruitful, and Duckworth went back up with a weather officer. Studying the hurricane allowed the meteorologists to not only better predict that storm, but to start building a better understanding of how hurricanes form and move.
Air Force 1st Lt. Tina Young examines data gathered while flying into the eye of Hurricane Ophelia on Sept. 14. Young is an aerial reconnaissance weather officer with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron.
(U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Michael Eaton)
This preceded a massive expansion of the Army’s weather reconnaissance squadrons, with new squadrons being stood up throughout the late 1940s and the ’50s with names like “Hurricane Hunters” and “Typhoon Chasers.” The introduction of satellites eventually made many of the formations unnecessary, leading to them being inactivated or re-missioned, but one unit remains in service.
The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, based in Mississippi, is an Air Force Reserve Unit still tasked with flying into the hearts of storms. But most of the missions into storms are now conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aircraft Operations Center.
In fact, the widely covered video of hurricane hunters flying into Hurricane Florence was shot by an NOAA crew working to collect data on the storm before it hits the U.S. east coast.
And the U.S. has been transitioning to using drones for hurricane flights where possible, saving pilots, even if it does make the news releases less exciting.