In honor of National Weatherperson's Day on Feb. 5, we're shining a spotlight on people who have made a career out of predicting, analyzing, reporting on, and even chasing the weather.
Meet Maj. Jeremy DeHart, a meteorologist and aerial reconnaissance weather officer for the Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters. Jeremy's job is fascinating (and dangerous), so we're grateful he took some time to answer our questions about what it's like to fly into hurricanes in order to keep us safe on the ground.
How does one become a meteorologist for the Air Force? Did you start out being interested in weather or flying first?
To become a weather officer in the Air Force, you need to have a 4-year degree in Meteorology or Atmospheric Science, which is a similar requirement for most public or private sector jobs in the career field. For the military side, you also need to commission through a valid commissioning source such as ROTC, Officer Training School, or the Air Force Academy. I earned my Meteorology degree from NC State University and received my commission through their Air Force ROTC program.
I have always been a weather nerd! When I started out as an Air Force weather officer over 15 years ago, I never imagined I’d end up doing this job. I held traditional Air Force weather jobs for most of my career, such as making forecasts for airfields, briefing aircrews and commanders, plus various leadership opportunities. But I’ve always been an operator at heart, and being part of the Hurricane Hunters is about as operational as it gets for a meteorologist. So when I had the opportunity to not only remain in weather operations but also to fly into hurricanes, I jumped on it. I may be a bit biased, but I think this is the most exciting job in the world for a meteorologist!
What is the primary objective of the Hurricane Hunters?
It is our responsibility to locate the exact position of a tropical cyclone (called a “fix”) as well as gather data about the internal structure of the storm. We transmit that information, in real time, to the National Hurricane Center. The data is then ingested into predictive hurricane models making them more accurate. NHC also relies heavily on our data for building their forecast products and graphics that are so important for generating public awareness of an approaching storm. These forecasts can drive decisions about whether or not to evacuate what could be millions of people, so ultimately, we serve the public by helping to protect property and save lives.
How much more can you learn from actually flying into dangerous weather like hurricanes, vs. studying it from the ground?
We can learn a lot about hurricanes by studying them through remote means like satellite and radar, but there is still no substitute for on-site aircraft reconnaissance. Our WC-130J gathers data at flight level such as wind speed and direction, temperature, moisture, and pressure. We also release dropsondes from the aircraft that measure the same variables all the way down to the sea surface. So by the end of one of our missions, we will have mapped every corner of the storm both horizontally and vertically. You just can’t get that kind of detail by only observing it from the ground.
Is there a tropical storm or hurricane that sticks out to you as the most dangerous mission you've been a part of?
I flew the landfall mission of Michael in 2018. Michael continued strengthening right up until landfall, so every time through the storm we would see another 3-4 mb drop in the central pressure and were just amazed at how it was able to continue to intensify. Then on the very last inbound eyewall penetration we dropped 2,000 feet in altitude in what was the most turbulence I have ever experienced on a mission. I also flew the landfall mission of Harvey the year prior. In Harvey we were able to hear mayday calls on our radios from ships moored along the Texas coast. We actually were able to relay those calls to the Coast Guard as we were making our passes through the hurricane. I think these missions stand out because I was very aware of what the people on the ground below must have been going through at that exact moment, which always reminds me that there is a real human element to the job we do.
What do you do outside of hurricane season?
We train year round, so outside of hurricane season we fly a lot of training missions so we can stay current and proficient at what we do. We also take the offseason to perform required maintenance on our aircraft, calibrate our instruments, and review our publications and regulations to make sure they are up to date. Most people don’t realize that we have a winter storm requirement as well. We can be tasked to fly reconnaissance for a nor’easter that threatens the east coast, and more recently we have been involved with flying the big atmospheric river storm systems that are so impactful to the western U.S. The flight paths are a lot different than with hurricane missions, but the idea is the same in that the data we collect is fed into global weather models like the GFS and the Euro so that these events can be forecasted more accurately.