Tony Land Photo
Major Sean Cross, Aircraft Commander (left) and co-pilot Lt. Cmdr. Robert Harder (right) fly the plane. Lt. Cmdr. Mark Stevens (rear) navigates. The smoke seen in the picture is water vapor from the plane’s airconditioning system interacting with the humid air. (Tony Land Photo)

(Updated 11p.m.) If you are accustomed to the comfort of commercial air travel, you might think the accommodations are a bit spartan on board the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron’s C-130.


Benches with webbed backrests make up the majority of the available seating. The crew says visiting news media were lucky there was a toilet on board, and the privacy curtain was an added bonus.

Apparently, many C-130 crews make do with a simple bucket. Not that it would matter one way or the other for co-pilot Lt. Commander Robert Harder, who never once got up from his seat throughout the entire 12-hour journey. 

One of the other big differences between the C-130 and a commercial aircraft is its lack of insulation — both for climate control and noise. The constant 110-decibel hum of the four turbofan engines is deafening. Ear protection is required, or you risk loosing your hearing and/or sanity.

But this was not a commercial flight and although the destination was tropical, it certainly wasn’t a vacation spot. This was a “Hurricane Hunters” flight, bound for the eye of Hurricane Irene off the coast of North Carolina.

Once the flight lifted off from Keesler Air Force Base near Gulfport, Mississippi, the hurricane was just three hours away.

Tony Land Talks About The Flight

Harder and mission commander Major Sean Cross brought the aircraft to Irene’s south side, and made the turn to begin their first penetration into the storm. At an altitude of 10,000 feet, the C-130 flew through the outer bands and directly through the eye of the storm, dropping instruments into the storm along the way. Over the next five hours, they proceeded to make four more passes through Irene, and dropped more than 20 probes.

The flight was bumpy, but not nearly as rough as expected. One pass through the storm was so calm that reporters weren’t certain the aircraft was still in the hurricane, and had to ask. Part of the reason is that the storm’s impact is a relative one. Standing on the ground in 85 mph winds is very noticeable, but that’s not necessarily the case on board an aircraft that has air passing over and under its wings at over 200 mph.

One of the instruments that is dropped from the C-130 is a water temperature probe known as an AXBT. The AXBTs transmit water temperature data back to the plane in real-time, sampling twice per second. Crew members said the AXBTs generally stop transmitting once they reach a depth of about 1,000 meters. 

Matt Rece Photo
A weather probe is readied to be dropped into Hurricane Irene (Matt Rece Photo)

These probes were originally acquired by the Navy for $500 dollars each to be dropped from Naval aircraft to assist in hunting submarines. According to Jeffrey L. Kerling, a Naval Oceanographic Office researcher aboard the the flight, the Navy’s arcane rules require the probes be “retired” after five years, used or unused. Kerling said he found 13,000 probes sitting in an Arizona army ammunition depot being readied for destruction, and purchased them for his agency for about $20 each. He says they work just fine despite their age.

Another set of probes dropped by the Hurricane Hunters measures atmospheric conditions. These $300 probes drop slowly to the surface via parachute and transmit temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed, and angle data back to the plane and are identical to the probes used on weather balloons. By launching both of these instruments in the same area simultaneously, the crew and meteorologists on the ground get a complete look at the storm from 10,000 feet in the air to 3,000 feet beneath the ocean surface. The data is fed into computer models.

Watch Matt Rece release a probe:

After five hours flying in and out of Irene from different directions, the crew made a final pass and headed back to Kessler for a rough landing — at least in comparison to a commercial flight. The C-130 slammed onto the tarmac and braked hard, sending a pile of unsecured news media equipment sliding forward into a pile at the front of the cargo area.

It was another day at the office for the flight crew. Many more flights will be made over the course of the storm and many others that may form before the end of this year’s hurricane season.