ST. CROIX, V.I. — They're back.
Members of the 403rd Wing of the Air Force Reserve 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron — the Hurricane Hunters — are on St. Croix this week, getting equipment and supplies in place and at the ready for what experts predict will be a busy hurricane season.
"We really like it here," said Col. Roy Deatherage, mission commander and a meteorologist who has been coming to St. Croix with the Hurricane Hunters since 1996, the first season they based some of their missions here.
The Hurricane Hunters fly WC-130J aircraft into tropical cyclones and disturbances to gather data that the National Hurricane Center then uses to help it determine the status of a storm and make predictions.
Before they came to St. Croix, they flew some missions from Antigua. But in 1996, they had to move the operation to U.S. soil, Deatherage said.
"So this was the best place to operate," he said.
The St. Croix location is good because it allows the Hurricane Hunters to investigate hurricanes and storms churning across the Atlantic, once the storms reach a longitude about 1,000 miles east of here. The St. Croix location also puts them in range to fly missions all through the Caribbean, as well as into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Hurricane Hunters are based at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., and the amount of time they spend on St. Croix really depends on the tropical cyclone activity and where that activity is located during any given year, Deatherage said.
He estimated that on average, some Hurricane Hunter crews are deployed on St. Croix for about one week per month from July through September — although that varies from year to year.
The data they collect is vital to the National Hurricane Center — and to people living on U.S. coastlines and on islands across the Caribbean, said Master Sgt. Brian Lamar, an Air Force Reserve spokesman.
"They — the National Hurricane Center — make their predictions based on our data," Lamar said.
The Hurricane Hunters fly all four quadrants of a storm, and one of their major functions is to determine the exact location of the center of the storm, according to Lamar. The location of the center is not always obvious — and knowing exactly where it is increases the accuracy of predicting a storm's track, Lamar said.
Each plane has a five-person crew: a pilot, a co-pilot, a navigator, a weather officer and a dropsonde operator, he said.
The planes release dropsondes to measure meteorological data from inside the storm and transmit it back to the Hurricane Center. The dropsondes — about the size of a tennis ball canister — can send two pages of text messaging every second to the Hurricane Center, Lamar said.
The data collected by Hurricane Hunters enables the Hurricane Center to reduce the "cone of uncertainty" in its projected hurricane tracks by 25 to 30 percent, Lamar said. The cost of gathering that data pays for itself, considering the average cost to evacuate for an impending hurricane in the U.S. — which is estimated at $250,000 to $1 million per mile, he said.
"We save the U.S. economy quite a bit each year," Lamar said. "We definitely pay for our own operating costs if you look at it from this perspective."
There are 10 full-time crews with the Hurricane Hunters and 10 part-time crews, he said, noting that the squadron has the capability to fly three different storms at a time. Depending on what's going on, three of those crews may be on St. Croix at any given point during the season, he said.
The crews on St. Croix are setting up this week and plan to return to Biloxi on Sunday.
Lamar said that because the Hurricane Hunters are a direct line-item on the national defense authorization, they have not been affected by sequestration.
"We're not getting our flying hours cut at all," he said. "As long as the National Hurricane Center needs us to fly a mission, we are flying that mission."