VW-4 Hurricane Hunters

VW-4 Hurricane Hunters

WC-121

VW-4 WV-3 Super Connie

As Hurricane Bill sits off the coast today, dumping copious amounts of rain on the SJS homestead (such as it is at the moment), we pause to consider a community of aviators and scientists whose mission brings them face to face with The Beast, under conditions normally sane aviators strive to avoid.  Today we take much for granted, not least of which is the timeliness and quantity of data and warning we enjoy as these fearsome storms wend their way across the broad ocean areas and threaten landfall.  It wasn’t always so – and that brings us to today’s Flightdeck Friday, the Hurricane Hunter edition. – SJS

Long before satellites carpeted the globe with their all-seeing, all tracking weather eyes, hurricanes and other major tropical storms were identified, located and reported on by ships at sea and observations from remote locations.  As often as not, the location of the center, storm size estimate and track was as much chance and good luck as it was application of scientific principles.  To be sure, the timeliness of any subsequent reporting was severely handicapped, even with the addition of radio reports.

VPW-3 PB4Y-2's over NAS Miami, 1948

VP-23 PB4Y-2's over NAS Miami, August 1949

P2V-3_VP-5_1951

P2V-3W Neptune

The addition of aircraft with the ability to cover long distances in relatively short order began tVPW-3o improve the reporting.  Immediately after the war, the PBM Mariner and PB4Y Privateer were drafted into service for hurricane recce, the long legs of the Privateer in particular (range of 2800 nm) having served the Navy well in WWII for convoy protection and ASW duties, with some 700+ procured. While several of the Navy’s patrol-bomber squadrons (VPB) conducted hurricane recce, it was the establishment of Weather Reconnaissance Squadron THREE (VPW-3) on 17 May 1946, that signaled the start of dedicated hurricane recce operations (note: it still had a secondary mission of ASW/long-range patrol).  Operating radar equipped PB4Y-2s, VPW-3 departed NAAS Camp Kearney, CA for NAS Miami and its first season of hunting hurricanes in the Caribbean.  Like most of naval aviation in the inter-war period between WWII and Korea, VPW-3 underwent several designation changes, even while its missions fundamentally remained unchanged.  On 15 November 1946 it was re-designated Meteorology Squadron THREE (VPM-3) and  as Heavy Patrol Squadron (Landplane)THREE (VP-HL-3) on 8 December 1947, the second squadron to be assigned the VP-HL-3 designation.  Re-designated Patrol Squadron TWENTY THREE (VP-23) on 1 September 1948, the squadron finally split in 1949, with a majority of the planes and personnel heading north to NAS Brunswick as the VP-23 Seahawks with a burgeoning Cold War mission of ASW and mining, and the remnant was commissioned as Weather Squadron TWO (VJ-2) in 1952.  Before heading north, however, VP-23 flew into a record 33 hurricanes during the 1949 season which ran from 1 Jun – 1 Nov 1949.  The squadron also played a feature role in the 1949 movie, Slatterly’s Hurricane.  1954 brought a change in aircraft (P2V-3W and later, P2V-5F Neptune’s equipped with the APS-20) and a change in designation, this time for the last time, to Airborne Early Warning Squadron FOUR (VW-4).  VW-4’s mission, following that established in VJ-2, was weather reconnaissance and a plane was in the works that would change the face of hurricane early warning.

At the end of WWII, the development of AEW radar had taken two clear paths – one, CADILLAC I, had led to the development of a carrier-based AEW capability using the TBM-3W.  By August 1945, a det of FAETUPAC TBM-3Ws were onboard USS Ranger and preparing for the invasion of Japan.  At the same time, CADILLAC II was putting the finishing touches on an AEW variant of the B-17G, designated PB-1W.  The concept of operations for this AEW program was to bring an organic CIC capability aloft and allow the air-battle to be plotted and fought even further from the battle force than what the more limited TBM-3Ws would allow.  After the war, the Navy continued its work on AEW radar, looking for a platform that would allow a larger antenna and more powerful radar to be carried aloft.  Greater endurance, longer patrol ranges and substantially improved coverage – all earnestly sought.  A transport from Lockheed would provide the answer.

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TWA Lockheed L-749, 1951

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Lockheed WV-1 at Barbers Point, 1952 (PB-1W in background)

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Lockheed PO-1W

In 1949, the Navy acquired two L-749 Constellations as proof-of-concept prototypes.  Mounting the proven, but less powerful AN/APS-20 below and an AN/APS-45 height-finding radar mounted above the fuselage imparting a double-hump look.  Looking for improved range, the Navy then chose the new Super Constellation (L-1049).  With increased fuel capacity (some in new tip tanks) and mounting four Wright R-3350-DA3 Turbo Compound 18-cylinder supercharged radial engines, boasting 3,250 hp each, the new WV-2 (nee PO-2W) had a range of over 4,200 nm and plenty of power to carry aloft the larger APS-76 (later variants were the APS-82 and -95 AEW radars).  With the larger antenna and more power, the WV-2 could “see” well out past 200 nm with its radar, an swept area that could handle plotting not only hostile aircraft inbound to the United States (for the primary mission of the WV-2 was for the AEW barrier on both coasts), but the largest of storms as well.

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Lockheed WV-2 of VW-1 overflies USS Sellstrom (DER-255) while flying the AEW Barrier Patrol (1957)

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Radar plot of Hurricane Donna from VW-4 WV-2 (1960)

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VW-4 WC-121N (WV-3) (1967)

By 1958, VW-4 was being equipped with the WV-2 (later updated to a specially configured WV-3/WC-121N).  Equipped thus, VW-4 could survey a swept area of 200,000 sq. nm and over the course of a mission, cover 1.5 million sq nm.  From 1958  through 1972 the Super Connie served with distinction in VW-4.  Long after the AEW barrier patrol had been stood down, when the other examples of the WV-2/EC-121K were either retired or flying special missions in Vietnam and at home, the Hurricane Hunters pressed onward into the worst mom Nature could throw at them.  It is perhaps noteworthy that in so doing, not a single WV-2 was lost.  In fact, in all of VW-4’s operational history, only one aircraft and crew – a P2V that was penetrating Hurricane Janet in Sept 1958, was their sole loss.  Key in this equation was the toughness of the WV-2.  While designed and optimized for speed, the Connie developed a reputation for toughness on these flights, bringing her crews back even after some particularly harrowing flights.  One extreme example was what occurred on 24 August 1964 as Hurricane Cleo gathered strength.  A Category 3 storm, Cleo was approximately 85- 120 nm SSW of Puerto Rico and moving west. Launching at 0850 that morning, a VW-4 WV-3 (BuNo 137891) departed NAS Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to conduct a  low-level, daylight penetration and then land at the NAVSTA Roosevelt Roads. They were to collect the usual weather data as on all penetrations, the lowest barometric pressure, areas of precipitation and extent of winds including the highest winds in the storm.  But as the record will show – this was anything but a “normal” Cat 3 hurricane:

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VW-4 WV-3/WC-121N after penetrating Hurricane Cleo (1964)

At 12:45 pm came the first real test. Whirling and swirling just ahead, five miles high and twenty-five miles thick lay the deadly wall cloud. Surface wind increased, 115…120, humidity was now 100% with a steady wall of water. The aircraft lurched forward. The engines were straining. The pilot called for more power. The fury below was all white. Turbulence increased to the point where all the cockpit instruments seemed to be dancing as if suspended in air. They were almost unreadable. Lieutenant Commander Don Edgren, who was at the controls, had all he could do to keep the aircraft upright and the wings somewhere close to level. Finally, the plane punched into the area which was where the eye was seen on radar but as they left the wall behind them, the pilots and crew stared in astonishment. The storm had no calm eye. It should have been a big, cloud-domed room about fifteen miles in diameter. Instead it was a wild, confused whirlwind turned loose on the aircraft. Winds were of exceedingly high velocity blowing in several directions at the same time. Turbu­lence was extreme. The plane was being tossed around like a toy. Reese and Edgren tried to make several turns but the plane was blown into the wall cloud a number of times. This was a storm with an eye gone mad. No one had ever seen anything like it before. There was no peaceful place to rest and relax for this crew. They had hoped to have a cup of coffee while the meteorologists took the pulse of the storm, instead everyone was just hanging on for dear life. (More here: navyhurricanehunters.com)

By 1972, VW-4 was changing aircraft once again, this time for a modified version of the WP-3A.  The transition was not long though as VW-4 was stood down from hurricane hunting in 1975 and the mission passed to the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, flying the WC-130 based at Keesler AFB, and NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters, operating out of MacDill AFB, flying WP-3Ds and Gulfstream IV’s.

VW-4 WP-3A over NAS Jacksonville (1973)

VW-4 WP-3A over NAS Jacksonville (1973)

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WC-130 of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron

hurricanehunters

NOAA's WP-3D and Gulfstream IV Hurricane Hunters

Still, while the aircraft and organizations have changed, the mission – and the perils, haven’t:

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Eyewall of Hugo

Hugo radar image prior to penetration by NOAA WP-3D

Hugo radar image prior to penetration by NOAA WP-3D

“WE’VE GOT FIRE COMING OUT OF NUMBER THREE!” Terry’s urgent cry shatters the stunned silence on the intercom.

“And I see something hanging from number four,” adds Sean, his voice sounding strangely calm.

For several eternal terrifying seconds, I watch the massive, white-frothed waves below us grow huge and close. I wait for impact, praying for survival. With two engines damaged, both on the same wing, I know that our odds are not good.

But my prayers are answered by the cool, professional reaction of the cockpit crew. Gerry snaps us up out of the right-rolling dive, a perilous 880 feet from the water. Steve Wade hits the kill switch on engine number three, and the 30-foot long flames shooting out of it die as the flow of fuel chokes off. Lowell and Frank take charge of keeping us in the eye, scanning the inside to size up where our path should take us.

A dark mass of clouds lies directly ahead, seconds away. Is it the eyewall? Or merely harmless low scud in the eye? There is no time think, no time to plan the best flight path. We must turn now to avoid the clouds. If we hit the eyewall again at this altitude, the storm will surely kill us. We must stay in the eye. (Read the rest here: Hunting HUGO)



3 Comments

  1. great webpage! posted the link to you on my AWRA and profile pages on Facebook. Got to fly a WC-121 of VW-1 to Guam when I was with the 54WRS rotating back from a TDY to Midway. Will get around to linking this to my webpage at http://www.tabacofamily.com/jtabaco/awr-amr.asp one of these days…joey

  2. Joey: Thanks for stopping by — don’t be a stranger! :)
    w/r, SJS

  3. Michael Martin

    Nice page indeed. I served at NAS Jacksonville from 1969 to 1972 as part of Fleet Weather working with VW-4. I was a radioman in the weather office that took the voice reports from the planes as they flew recon in the weather out there. I did get to fly on one mission series and clocked my 200mph patch, it was enough to tell me I was better off on the ground in the tower talking on the radio.

    Was there for the transition from the super connie to the P3’s, I had my flight in the Constellation which was a grand but very old bird. I left there for Hawaii in late 1972.

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