FINAL MESSAGE – “BEGINNING PENETRATION. . .”

Image credit: navyhurricanehunters.com

The Airborne Early Warning Squadron Four (VW-4) was the seventh aircraft squadron assigned to weather reconnaissance missions that began in 1953. It operated under the control of the Navy’s Fleet Air Wing Eleven whose home was at NAS Jax. In September 1955, a strong huricane named Janet entered the Caribbean Sea, spinning unimpeded westward over the hurricane season’s warmest waters south of Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, and Jamaica.

In those days, there were no weather satellites to provide cloud images of tropical storms and hurricanes. These powerful storms usually formed over tropical waters great distances from land-based weather stations, and there were seldom reports from ships on these conditions because they tried to avoid such dangerous weather. For these reasons, reconnaissance by aircraft became the only effective way to determine a hurricane’s strength and location before striking land. To obtain this information, Hurricane Hunters had to fly into the eye and then penetrate the storm’s violent wall clouds.

You can learn much about those who challenged the elements in David Toomey’s “Stormchasers”, which delves into the mystery of what became of Navy Lieutenant Commander Grover B. Windham and a crew of eight on the plane whose radio code name was Snowcloud Five. All that we know is that flew it flew out of Guantanamo Bay and past Jamiaca into a hurricane that was about to reach category 5 intensity.

On September 29, 1959, I flew in a Super Constellation with a team from NAS Jax VW-4 into hurricane Gracie while it was about 200 miles east of St. Augustine. We encountered the hurricane at an altitude of 1,000 feet, not 600 feet like Snowcloud Five four years earlier. Our reconnaissance began through the southwest (weaker) side of Gracie. A few on board retrieved their barf bags, but I was enjoying the experience of feeling the turbulence and observing the wind-swept waves on the seas below. It was only a half hour later that we entered the eye, taking a counterclockwise ascending course to an altitude around 10,000 feet.

The pilot was then directed by the Hurricane Center to enter the storm’s northeast quadrant and measure Gracie’s peak winds. We suddenly entered the eye wall and it seemed like we were in a war zone. It sounded like blasts of dynamite with flashes of light inside the clouds. The aircraft was buffeted from side to side, and occasionally rapidly upward before dropping rapidly downward. I was seated by the window looking out at the bending of the wings, when the inboard engine suddenly raced full speed, and then abruptly stopped. When I inquired what happened, I was told that it was a “runaway prop”. The engine had to be turned off before the propeller blades flew off in different directions, possibly into the fusilage where I was sitting. I was then disappointed to hear that our mission was scrubbed, and we were heading back to NAS Jax. As I checked the storm reports that evening, I learned that Hurricane Gracie had increased strength to Category 4.

Over the years, the Navy’s Hurricane Hunters made 770 eye penetrations, and have completed 50,000 accidents-free flying hours. They were stationed in Jacksonville from 1952 to 1975, except for four years in the early 1960s being assigned to Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico. Sadly, they were decommisioned in April 1975, but they always remain in my heart, especially when I see and hear the few P-3’s still performing take offs and landings at NAS Jax.

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