Hurricane Hunters: Into The Eye Of The Storm

By Troy Gilbert

With a lot of courage and just a dash of Hollywood, U.S. Air Force Hurricane Hunters chase the eye of the storm. But off the clock, a surprising number are also boaters.

Photo of hurricane hunter plane flying over coastlineAir Force pilots known as Hurricane Hunters fly into deadly hurricanes to gather storm data for analysis by the National Hurricane Center to help determine if storms are dissipating or gathering strength. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Major Brad Boudreaux banked his Air Force C-130 and immediately headed south after takeoff. Below him on the Intracoastal Waterway he could see legions of boats ranging from 60-foot sportfishing charters to 20-foot sailboats, all moving purposefully opposite to his course. They were fleeing what he was about to fly into — the eye of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.

As a pilot for the legendary Hurricane Hunters out of Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, and a native of Covington, Louisiana, Boudreaux knows all too well the periodic weather-related dramas of boating on the Gulf Coast. But he also understands that he couldn't live anywhere else. Formed in 1943 in a barroom dare between two Air Force pilots, the Hurricane Hunters' mission is to fly directly into the deadliest winds and weather of Atlantic season hurricanes and take a multitude of atmospheric and meteorological readings. Their modified C-130s are filled with specialized equipment that helps to gauge speed, direction, intensity, and potential landfalls of a storm — data that, if necessary, will determine evacuations throughout the southeastern and Gulf Coasts of the United States. All of the pilots, crews, and ground support personnel live in hurricane country so, for them, the mission is personal. Also, many are boaters who cruise the very waters they regularly fly over.

Photo of Major Brad Boudreaux driving his boatAs often as possible, Major Brad Boudreaux spends his non-flying time in his boat. (Photo: Major Brad Boudreaux)

Boudreaux transferred from flying B-52 bombers to the Hurricane Hunters in 2007, specifically because he wanted to return to a lifestyle on the Gulf Coast and get access to the water. "Since I can remember, I've been on a boat," he says. "I was driving boats before I could legally drive a car. I started waterskiing when I was 6 years old on the Tchefuncte River in Louisiana, and I was slaloming by the time I was 9. Now I have my kids out here wakeboarding three and four times a week on the Tchoutacabouffa River behind our house in Biloxi."

Boudreaux is one of those guys who is "boat rich" (he has five) or "boat poor" (that's where all that money went), depending on how you look at it, and he could tell boating stories all weekend. But when the weather takes a turn for the worse, things get serious for the major.

"When storms build in the Gulf, that means I'm working," he says. "So for my family, we have a plan that we have to set in motion out of necessity long before anyone else, and that, of course, includes a plan for securing and trailering the boats." On a flight into a tropical storm, which was rapidly intensifying into a Category 1 hurricane, Boudreaux had one of his most dangerous experiences on a mission. "This storm was rapidly building with heavy rains, hail, turbulence, and lightning. We started experiencing heavy downdrafts from a severe thunderstorm, and a mezocyclone, basically an airborne tornado, suddenly developed in front of us that we couldn't evade. It first tried to turn the airplane upside down and when we wouldn't let it do that, it threw us into a nosedive."

Photos of Major Sean CrossMajor Sean Cross at the helm of his Sea Ray (left) and getting ready to go to work as a 53rd Weather Reconnaissance pilot and aircraft commander (right). (Photos: Major Sean Cross, U.S. Air Force)

Major Sean Cross is another who knows these experiences all too well, both in the air and their effects on the ground. He and his family went through Hurricane Katrina in Biloxi and were transferred to Atlanta along with the entire Hurricane Hunter squadron who continued to operate without missing a beat, even while their homes, property, and base were laid to waste. "Our home was damaged," he recalls. "Basically, even if you don't live on the water down here, you can see it. Everyone was affected." Cross grew up in New Orleans trawling and shrimping with his "Paw Paw" on a Lafitte skiff and eventually inherited the boat. As he got older, he moved on to Chaparrals, then WaveRunners, and today runs a SeaRay 260 Sundancer that he and his wife use throughout the Gulf's barrier islands. "We keep the boat in Destin, Florida, during the summer months, and spend a lot of time out at Crab Island in the Destin Pass. We live for those long weekends."

As with any military organization, there's a lot of camaraderie, and unit cohesion exists whether on duty or not. That extends to being on the water for most of these Air Force pilots. Majors Boudreaux and Cross both live on the same river in Biloxi. "Most people walk their neighborhoods and see their neighbors, but here on the Gulf Coast we take jet skis out and meet up with the other water bugs," says Cross.

Photo of Colonel Jeff Ragusa taking the helm in the air and on the wateColonel Jeff Ragusa of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron takes the helm in the air and on the water. (Photos: U.S. Air Force, Lt. Colonel Jeff Ragusa)

Lt. Colonel Jeff Ragusa was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, waterskiing on the False and Tickfaw Rivers, and today lives in Biloxi. "You will feel out of place here if you don't fish, and certainly if you don't boat," he says. Ragusa keeps his Bayliner in dry storage at the Keesler Air Force Base marina and is able to leave his "office" and be on the water in 30 minutes. He and his wife waterski, but primarily take their son and his friends out kneeboarding. Their real passion, however, is for waterfront dining. "We love finding restaurants along the coast where we can take a sunset cruise, dock up, and have dinner. We go as far as Gulfport and Ocean Springs along the ICW, but the Biloxi back bay has so many restaurants with docks and is so convenient that we are out there at least once a week." As with any branch or division of the military, all the men and women who constitute the Hurricane Hunters execute and understand their mission, but there's an especially personal aspect to what these crews do. Ragusa explains, "We live in this community here in Mississippi and on the Gulf Coast, and our mission directly affects our neighbors. Everyone in the military has people and individuals that come up and thank them for their service, but here we have people who come up to us in the grocery store or at our son's school and thank us for what we do for our local community." 

— Published: August/September 2014

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