Women of Weather: Hurricane Hunters Make a Difference

Two Air Force officers realized their dreams about becoming a Hurricane Hunter and flying into the most powerful storms on Earth.

Air Force Maj. Ashley Lundry, an aerial reconnaissance weather officer, and Air Force Maj. Devon Meister, a pilot, are both members of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, referred to as the Hurricane Hunters, a unit in the 403rd Wing here.

The 53rd WRS is the only Defense Department unit that flies reconnaissance missions into severe tropical weather during the hurricane season, June 1 through Nov. 30, to gather data for the National Hurricane Center to improve their forecasts and storm warnings.

Father’s Support

“It was my dream to fly though hurricanes since I was a little girl,” Lundry said. Her father, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and Navy pilot, influenced her career choice, she said. “I always thought weather was really cool, and my dad told me there were pilots who flew planes through hurricanes,” she added. “He planted the idea that I could do it.”

And she did, though she first served in the Army and the Air National Guard. Lundry received an Army ROTC scholarship to attend the Florida Institute of Technology, earning a degree in meteorology and her commission in 2006. She got her master’s degree in physical science at Emporia State University in Kansas in 2013.

After serving four years as an Army logistics officer, she transferred to the Oklahoma Air National Guard in 2010 to serve as a weather officer. She attended the Weather Officer Course here in 2010 and toured the 53rd WRS, which provided her an opportunity to inquire about future opportunities to serve in the squadron, she said. She transferred to the 53rd in 2014 and began her training to become a qualified ARWO.

For Meister, the path to become a Hurricane Hunter wasn’t a lifelong goal as it was for Lundry, but she knew she wanted a degree in mathematics, and the Air Force provided her the opportunity to do so, she said.

“I really liked math,” said Meister, who earned her degree from the University of South Florida in 2003. “And a good thing about a mathematics degree is that it opens a lot of doors for you in the military. At the time I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in the Air Force, but they needed weather officers. They sent me to get a second bachelor’s degree in meteorology at the U.S. Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, California, and I became a weather officer.”

Meister also attended the Weather Officer Course here in 2004 and visited the Hurricane Hunters to learn about their mission. 

“Ever since I went on that tour, I wanted to be a part of the Hurricane Hunters,” Meister said.

However, Meister got the opportunity to become a pilot and took it. While in pilot training, she found out her unit was losing its mission and she had to find a job, so she called the 53rd WRS and was told that the squadron had a pilot board scheduled the following month. She met that board and signed on as a Hurricane Hunter in November 2011.

Among the Few

Today, Meister is one of two female pilots in the squadron, one of 243 female pilots in the Air Force Reserve, and one of 728 in the entire Air Force. Lundry is one of four female ARWOs in the squadron, Air Force Reserve and Air Force; the 53rd WRS is the only unit that has this job.

It’s a unique mission, and with that mission comes unique challenges. As a pilot, Meister and her counterparts fly into storms most pilots avoid.

“The biggest difference between being a pilot for the Hurricane Hunters versus another unit is we purposely fly into severe weather rather than avoid it; and there is no training for that,” Meister said.

In fact, the majority of the squadron’s training for pilots, navigators, ARWOs and loadmasters is all conducted at home station and during operational missions, she said, as there is no formal schoolhouse.

“We are a student for multiple missions into a hurricane so we can experience the environment,” said Meister, who added it took her about two years of pilot training, C-130J specific qualification and on-the-job training to become proficient to fly through storms.

Meister, who has now flown into 52 storms and has more than 1,500 flight hours, said her role as a pilot is to fly the weather officer into the storm.

Because the Air Force has only 20 ARWOs, Lundry said, their training also takes place in-house.

“We need actual storms to fly for training, so the hurricane season impacts how soon you can become fully qualified,” Lundry explained, adding that it took about a year and she flew through 10 storms with 94 storm flight hours.

Two Types of Missions

The squadron conducts two types of missions: low-level invests and fix missions. ARWOs direct the mission for both, Lundry said.

“And that’s unique to our mission,” Meister said. “The weather officer is telling the pilot where to go to get the best data, and then the navigator and pilots work together to ensure the crew will be safe flying into those conditions.”

A low-level invest mission is flown at 500 to 1,500 feet to determine if there is a closed circulation, and if there is a closed circulation, the crew begins flying fix missions into the system, Lundry said. Once a system becomes a tropical storm or hurricane, the Hurricane Hunters begin flying at higher altitudes, ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 feet depending on the severity of the storm.

Aircrews fly through the eye of a storm four to six times to locate the low-pressure center and circulation of the storm. During each pass through the center, they release a dropsonde, which collects weather data on its descent to the ocean surface, specifically gathering the surface winds and pressure.

During the invest and storm flights, the aircrews transmit weather data via satellite communication every 10 minutes to the National Hurricane Center to assist with their forecasts and storm warnings.

Some people may wonder why a person would want to do this job, but it was an easy decision, Meister and Lundry said.

“I want to make sure I’m spending my time on Earth wisely; I want to do something that’s valuable,” Meister said. “The only tool that forecasters have for tropical cyclone prediction is satellite data; and that’s not enough because a satellite can’t tell you the exact center, wind speeds on the surface, and the central pressure of a storm. We have to fly into the storm to gather that data. Providing this data to the NHC and increasing their forecast accuracy is rewarding and important to me.”

Making a Difference

Meister and Lundry said they believe they’re making a difference in the lives of others by doing this mission.

As women with mathematics and scientific degrees in scientific career fields that are typically dominated by men, Meister and Lundry are setting an example for future generations. In 2015, women filled 47 percent of all U.S. jobs and held 24 percent of the jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematic jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce Office Economics and Statistics Administration Office of the Chief Economist “STEM Jobs: 2017 Update.”

“As a meteorologist, and in any science career, there are fewer females, but I think that’s changing,” Lundry said.

“I was surprised to learn that only 7 percent of pilots in Reserve are women,” Meister said. “But, that’s why I like going and talking at schools where little girls can see that there is a female doing the job. I like to go on the Caribbean Hurricane Awareness Tour and U.S. Hurricane Awareness Tour to show young women there is a girl on this plane, and there is opportunity out there for them to become an aircrew member. Every day during the HAT,” she continued, “a child would ask if girls fly on this plane, and we say, ‘Yes, and you can, too.’”

The pilot’s advice to young women is to push themselves and just try something challenging as it can be really difficult to take that first step, she said.

“Get out of your comfort zone and try things you don’t think you can do, because what you’re capable of will surprise you,” she said. “Focus on being teachable; do your best to learn the material and then try something harder. By successfully passing courses in school you are building a track record for of success for yourself. In high school I never would have thought I’d be where I am today, but the military made that possible.”