I made arrangements to fly on one of the Huricane Hunter planes. Well, I did fly on one of the Hurricane Hunter planes, but we didn't make it to the hurricane. This story wasn't written for publication, just to let my friends know what happened. I will try again next year.

Remember, though, that it is still copyrighted material.

Rainbow Chaser and crew may be landlocked for a bit, but we aren’t sitting still.

I made arrangements some time ago to fly on one of the hurricane hunter planes to write a story for "Telltales", our Texas sailing magazine. When Keith started building up in the Caribbean, I began watching it real close. Wednesday morning I called the coordinator at Keesler AFB, Mississippi. Keith was just coming off of the Yucatan and was building again. I had a seat at 7 am Thursday morning if I wanted it. I told her to put me on the list. I’d be there.

I left Austin Wednesday afternoon heading for Mississippi. I got a room late Wednesday night in Gulfport and was at the gate of Keesler a little before 7 am, along with a film crew from the Discovery Channel and another film crew from CNN.

We were lead to the headquarters of the 53ed Weather Reconnaissance Squadron of the 403 Wing of the Air Force Reserve. They, and their predecessors, have been flying into hurricanes and other storms since 1944. Soon we were in the briefing room with the people who would be the crew of our flight. Well, our crew, minus the pilot. He was stuck in traffic on the other side of town.

We were allowed to film, take pictures, and look over shoulders as we desired. We were told that everything was open to us, and if we didn’t see what we wanted to just ask. I’m not sure I could tolerate a couple people sticking big TV cameras right over my shoulder from behind, filming everything I was doing from right next to my ear, but they handled it well. Actually, they handled it as if we weren’t even there, and apologized if they had to move and interrupted what WE were trying to do. They were quite accommodating hosts. During the plotting of the flight and pulling up weather on the computer our pilot showed up.

These guys are all reservists. That might give the impression of weekend warrior, wanna-be flyers, but these guys are real professionals. Many of the pilots are airline pilots the rest of the time. Some are retired military pilots who want to keep their skills up. This is the first season of hurricane flights for our pilot, but he’d recently retired from active duty, where he’d flown C-130’s for years. About half the people in the reserve unit are reservists on active duty, working all year long to keep the group and it’s gear in top shape.

A bit later we were bussed to the plane, a WC-130 Hercules,

which is the same plane as the C-130 military transport we’ve all seen many times. It isn’t any different structurally, but it was first modified with large windows in the front of the cargo area on each side with large adjustable seats that were used for spotters in search and rescue missions in it’s previous assignments, and later, computerized weather instrumentation was added for the current missions. In addition to the standard 2400 gallons of fuel in the wing tanks, it also has a very large added fuel tank in the middle of the cargo bay. This 4 foot in diameter by about 20 foot long tanks holds another 1400 gallons, giving it about 18 hours flying time.

We got all the gear loaded, and those film crews carry a lot of gear. Once it was all strapped in and we were briefed in the plane, engines were started and we were off.

The Discovery Channel camera man got the left hand observation window,

the CNN camera man got the right hand window.

I got a smaller window behind the Discovery Channel, and the sound men were in the back. We all filmed the takeoff and climbout, then settled back. I watched closely, since I’d sailed these waters several times. I watched as we crossed the Mississippi Delta, seeing the points we’d sailed around in Rainbow Chaser. Soon we passed just north of Grand Isle, where I’d delivered Lulu about 6 years ago.

We had all settled back and were relaxing, trying to get a nap on our expected 2 1/2 hour flight to Keith. After a little bit I noticed that Juan, the CNN sound man, got up and talked to the crew for a minute. Soon there were two crew members with a flashlight looking up at the ceiling about 10 feet behind me. I asked Juan what was going on.

It seemed that he’d noticed a bit of oil on one of his bags. He asked if that was normal and apparently it was not. They were now trying to figure out what to do about it.

Soon we had field grade officers climbing on a rack up in the top of the aircraft poking around. I asked our escort what was going on. She said they were going to try to fix the leak. If they couldn’t fix it, we’d have to go back.

A few minutes later I knew we were in trouble. We had a couple of officers up there with their vice grips trying to tighten a hydraulic fitting! I grabbed my camera a started snapping pictures - I’d never observed in-flight airplane repair before!

The CNN guy saw me taking pictures and said "Damn, I didn’t think of filming this - where is my camera!" Within a minute, they had Discovery Channel and CNN videoing and me snapping digital pictures of in-flight-airplane-repair.

They had no luck. Soon we were turning back. After only about an hour and a half, we figured our flying time was just about over. In all honesty, the leak probably would make no difference at all. It probably wouldn’t have leaked more than a few ounces in the whole trip. We also knew they would never have seen it if the CNN guy hadn’t pointed it out to them. We blamed him for making us turn back.

We had an uneventful flight back to the base. Everyone’s cameras were going as we came in - after all, it was the end of the flight. There was no reason to save batteries or tape. As we screeched onto the runway and taxied to the turnoff point, what did we see but fire trucks, ambulances and emergency crew in full fire suits! They weren’t taking chances.

Once they were sure we weren’t blazing we were allowed to taxi back to the flightline. As we got out, more and more vehicles showed up with lots of military brass.

I was approached by the base physician, who asked if I’d breathed any of the fumes. Fumes? I’ve gotten more oil in my face most times when I changed the oil in my truck! I explained that there were only a few drops, nobody even got any on them. They were just being cautious. I’m not sure he was convinced, but he got the same answer from everyone else. Regardless, he wanted the names and addresses of all of us. He was going to research all the ingredients of the hydraulic oil and would contact us if there was anything dangerous in there.

Later I talked to the navigator. He said that he didn’t expect quite that turnout. They’d asked how bad the leak was. He told them it wasn’t bad, just a small leak. They asked if it was all over the floor. "No, just a little bit." Was there a puddle? "Well, a little one." That was enough - they sent everything at us.

We figured the flying was all over. Once we were allowed back on the plane we got all our gear and loaded it on the bus. We figured we were going home. Our escort had different ideas, though. She said they might just send us on another plane and continue. We were going to stay right there and wait - they’d have to tell us to leave. So we waited.

About a half hour later, someone brought the word. The flight was on! We just had to get on the next plane and we’d be off again soon. By now it was about 1 PM. It would be late before we got back.

Everyone knew the drill by then, we took our seats, got our ear plugs and waited. The crew got settled in, the engines fired up and we waited. They went through all the checks, the engines went to nearly full speed. We waited. The engines screamed. After quite some time, probably 20 minutes, the engines wound down. They were turned off. Everyone off, we were told. The de-icer on one propeller wouldn’t work right. That plane wasn’t going anywhere.

I asked our escort if this was normal. She said that in her 11 years, flying on many flights each year, they’d never had a plane come back. Once they’d lost oil pressure in one engine and continued on 3 engines. Another time an engine overheated, they shut it down and continued. In all her flights they’d never had to turn back. We were now down 2 planes in one day.

We unloaded, wondering if we’d get yet another chance. We didn’t go back to the 53ed’s offices, as that would make it too easy to just push us out the door. We went to a nearby office building that was being remodeled to make phone calls and wait. After another half hour, we got the news. We were given a third shot at Keith!

We loaded our gear on the first plane, which had been fixed by that time. Then we all had to get back a distance while they replaced all the fuel we used.

After yet another half hour, we were all ready to get on the plane again when word came that NOAA had called. They’d determined that by the time we got there, Keith would be over Mexico and we couldn’t fly into it.

We were all pretty disappointed. Our escort was going to a new job in 2 weeks and she figured this was going to be her last time in a hurricane. She missed it. CNN didn’t have much of a story. Discovery channel didn’t have much either. We’d done everything that would happen on a hurricane flight - the prep, briefings, flying, all of it, except actually going through it - but that left it being nearly nothing of a story.

CNN called Miami to find out what else to film. Nothing , they were told, if we weren’t going through the eye. No story. The Discovery Channel called Chicago - same message. I helped them carry all their gear back once again. As I left, they were trying to figure out what to film to salvage the time. CNN had rounded up the fight crew and was going to do interviews in front of one of the planes. The Discovery Channel guys were still trying to put together something. They both asked what my office wanted me to do. I think they were a bit envious when I told them I didn’t work for anyone - I was freelance. I could make my own decisions, good or bad. I was going to Texas!

Now, if this sounds like a big bust, in some ways it was. It’s not nearly the story it would have been if we’d just made one pass through the eye. But, as my escort said, we would do everything the same regardless of whether it was a cat 5 hurricane or a tropical storm. There would just be a little different view out the window for a bit. So, even if I didn’t get all I expected, it was well worth it. I may get another chance this year, and there is always next year. Besides, Juan, the CNN sound guy, has an offshore fishing boat in Miami and I have an invitation to go after dolphin.

Gene Gruender

Copyright 2000

All Rights Reserved

  • HOME