Hurricane Hunters’ Super Hercules testing latest SATCOM capabilities

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Representatives from R4 Integration in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., lift a satellite antenna from its storage bin to install it onto a WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., Oct. 12, 2021. The antenna is part of a satellite communications system designed to provide more efficient data transmission capabilities during 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron missions into tropical disturbances. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kristen Pittman)


By Staff Sgt. Kristen Pittman

403rd Wing Public Affairs

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. (AFNS) —  

For the Air Force Reserve‘s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron Hurricane Hunters, stationed at Keesler Air Force Base, the ability to transmit data in flight is tantamount to mission success.

As one of their WC-130J Super Hercules powers through a hurricane, a loadmaster is in the back, preparing and launching dropsondes that collect atmospheric data.

The aerial reconnaissance weather officer sits adjacent, quality checking the figures from the dropsonde, as it plummets to the ocean’s surface, and from the stepped frequency microwave radiometer attached to the wing of the aircraft.

From there, all pertinent information that can help forecasters better predict the storm’s intensity and track is sent directly from the aircraft to the National Hurricane Center, Florida, or the Central Pacific Hurricane Center, Hawaii.

To accomplish all of this, the 53rd WRS’s 10 WC-130Js are equipped with satellite communications capabilities.

While for years the squadron’s 10 aircraft have been able to send the atmospheric data collected from the dropsondes and SFMRs, new technology is being tested that will allow more real-time information for the NHC concurrent with the National Hurricane Operations Plan’s requirements of radar reflectivity imagery and high density, three-dimensional Doppler radial velocities of the tropical cyclone core circulation.

Ed Bodony, Center Test Authority test director at Robins AFB, Georgia, and 1st Lt. Makiah Eustice, flight engineer for the CTA, made the trip to test a protocol satellite communications system that will allow those on the ground to see high-definition video of radar footage from flights as they fly through a storm.

“With our current system, we’re able to send data we collect in intermittent bursts throughout the flight,” said Lt. Col. Tobi Baker, 53rd WRS ARWO. “This new SATCOM system will allow us to send data continuously, including sending video of the radar imagery we’re seeing on our screens on the aircraft to the people on the ground.”

For this initial testing portion, Bodony and Eustice as well as representatives from the companies behind the technology, first conducted a ground test.

“We tested for compatibility and functionality to make sure it’s not going to harm any other parts or functions of the airplane’s normal systems like taking off, cruising, and commanding,” Eustice said.

Eustice also said they tested to make sure the system could transmit data and be received on the ground.
The setup used for testing is called the C-130 X-Band Multi-Purpose Hatch System Solution SATCOM System and includes a hatch mounted satellite antenna, a portable base kit, and a laptop.

The 18-inch electronically steerable parabolic antenna, enclosed in what is called a radome, is inserted and protrudes from the escape hatch on the flight deck while connected to the base kit in the back of the aircraft, which consists of a power distribution unit, power supply, tactical switch, modem, and router.

“The equipment used for these tests is not exactly what the final product will be like,” Bodony said. “What we’re using for testing is what’s called a ‘roll on, roll off’ setup, because of the relative ease of putting it on and taking it off of the aircraft. If all goes well, and the 53rd (WRS) moves forward with this technology, a permanent design will be constructed and installed.”

Following the ground test, the crew took flight.

“Everything went well,” Bodony said. “This two-day process was just to qualify and confirm that the equipment works. Next is operational testing. A different crew of engineers will come in and they’ll test its capabilities in an actual storm environment.”

Of course, unlike other weapons systems and testing, it’s difficult to plan operational testing when it’s dependent on the weather, so the unit will have to wait for a storm to develop to complete the process.

“This has been in the works for a long time,” Baker said. “Right now, we’re able to send the radar imagery we compile from flights in a video file after the fact. That’s great for research purposes, but being able to send the video in real time will be beneficial for those people on the ground putting out the watches and warnings as it will give them a better idea of what’s going on in and around the eye or center of a storm.”

A WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft assigned to the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron sits on the flight line at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., Oct. 12, 2021. The attachment on top of the aircraft is a satellite antenna the squadron is testing out that will enhance in-flight data transmission capabilities, resulting in more information for forecasters at the National Hurricane Center to work with. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kristen Pittman)