OVER THE ATLANTIC OCEAN -- A seven-member crew from the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Unit -- the Hurricane Hunters -- took off from Keesler Air Force Base at exactly midnight Saturday.
During the 10.6 hours they were in the air, the winter storm pounding the East Coast dropped 19 inches of snow on Washington, caused widespread flooding in New Jersey and left 150,000 homes and businesses in North Carolina without power.
That data was relayed to 1st Lt. Leesa Froelich, the mission's on-board meteorologist, otherwise the crew would have no way of knowing any of it.
Their mission was to fly into, or rather above, what is being widely considered one of the worst storms to ever hit the Eastern Seaboard, and gather data that can help forecasters predict the storm's behavior. But at the C-130J's altitude of more than 20,000 feet, the air was largely smooth and the skies were blue. And despite the historic storm lashing away below, the mission was typical. If anything, it was smoother than expected.
"It's a completely different mission (than for a hurricane,)" Froelich said. "Here, we have a set path. With a hurricane it's more fluid. With a winter storm, we fly as high as we can."
The Biloxi-based Hurricane Hunters have been operating as a unit since the 1940s. As their name implies, they are best known for their work in hurricanes, where they fly much lower -- at 10,000 feet -- and directly into and through the eye of storms. They flew missions during and after 2005's Hurricane Katrina, despite sustaining heavy losses, and the unit starred for two seasons in the Weather Channel's reality show "Hurricane Hunters," which chronicled their work.
Flying through hurricanes is more dramatic, but meteorologists also need data on winter storms.
After takeoff, it was about a two-hour flight to reach the storm. After the plane was over the Atlantic Ocean, it followed a set trajectory that looped north to New York then south to Florida and back to Biloxi.
While in the air, two load masters deployed 10 dropsondes.
"The dropsonde is a meteorological instrument that records quite a big of data. It records temperature, pressure, dew point, depression, all sorts of interesting meteorological data recorded in the form of code that is sent from the dropsonde to the computer. Then we do quality checks and send it to the weather office," said Staff Sgt. Jesse Jordan, one of the load masters. "They do their weather-officer magic with it and send it off to NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) where it is disseminated."
Jordan and Joseph Latham, the mission's other load master, deployed the dropsondes while Froelich spent the flight monitoring the devices and the data they sent back.
Also aboard were the pilots and a navigator.
By the time the mission landed shortly after 10:30 a.m. Saturday, the crew still didn't know much about what their mission had told other meteorologists about the storm. But while they were in the air the data they collected was being used, in real time, to update forecasts and help cities plan for the rest of the storm.