An interview with a Hurricane Hunter pilot

In several previous blogs, I’ve posted interviews with Dr. Nicholas Obermeyer, a key character in my novel EYEWALL Dr. Obermeyer, or Obie, as he’s called, is the best hurricane forecaster I’ve ever met. He’s also known to be outspoken and controversial.

Today I’d like to introduce you to another prominent player in EYEWALL, Major Arlen Walker, an Air Force Reservist who’s a pilot with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, the Air Force Hurricane Hunters. The 53rd is headquartered at Keesler AFB, Biloxi, Miss.

Me: Thanks for taking time to speak with me, Major Walker.

W: My pleasure.

Me: I wonder if we could start with you giving me a thumbnail sketch of your Air Force career?

W: Certainly. I served six years on active duty, mostly flying C-130s with the 314th Airlift Wing out of Little Rock AFB. After I left active duty, I joined the Air Force Reserve, first flying 130s with the 302nd Airlift Wing out of Colorado Springs, then later chasing hurricanes with the 53rd Weather Recon Squadron.

Me: But still driving C-130s?

W: Yes, sir. Only now it’s the brand new J-model. A far cry from your father’s C-130.

Me: Well, to be honest, C-130s weren’t around when my father was in the military. But I’ll let you in on a little secret. I rode a C-130 from Okinawa into Saigon on my first tour of duty in Vietnam in 1965.

W: Good grief. ’65? You sure that wasn’t a Ford Trimotor?

Me: [mutters] I’ll suffer in silence.

W: Sorry. Couldn’t resist that. It probably was an A- or B-model.

Me: Long ago and far away. But back to the present. How do you like flying the J-model?

W: It’s a beautiful aircraft. Creature comforts are in short supply. But if you’re going to be tootling into the greatest storms on earth, I can’t think of a better airplane to do it in.

Me: But flying isn’t a full time job for you, is it?

W: No, most of the time I’m a mild-mannered banker with Raintree National Bank in Biloxi.

Me: Do the two jobs ever come into conflict?

W: [pauses] Not really.

Me: Not really?

W: Well, I think my wife might be happier if I spent more time as a banker.

Me: Could you elaborate?

W: [pauses again] No, I’d rather not.

Me: [I could tell I’d hit on a sore point with Major Walker, but I also understood it wasn’t a topic he wished to pursue.] Okay. Let’s go back to flying then. Ever gotten scared on any of your recon missions?

W: No. I mean, things can get hairy at times, and I’ve had the stuffing shaken out of me more than once, but it doesn’t happen often. We usually penetrate the really nasty storms at 10,000 feet, and while we can get knocked around pretty good at that flight level, there’s a big margin for error.

Me: But this isn’t exactly a job without risk, is it?

W: No. Look, anytime you’re flying into severe turbulence in an airborne machine piloted by human beings, well, there’s a risk of failure or mistakes. But we’re trained to deal with problems. The 53rd has never lost a plane or a life flying into hurricanes.

Me: What’s your biggest fear?

W: Not being aware of a rapidly strengthening storm and penetrating it at too low an altitude.

Me: But does that happen in this day and age?

W: You bet. A NOAA Hurricane Hunter drove into a surprisingly strong Hugo in 1989 at too low an altitude, lost an engine and got trapped in the eye.

Me: But they got out?

W: Yes. But it’s something I’d rather not experience.

Me: Thank you, Major Walker. And best of luck in the upcoming Hurricane Season.

Photo: A Hurricane Hunter aircraft
This is a WC-130J, the type of aircraft piloted by Major Arlen Walker for the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron.

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