AIRBORNE EARLY WARNING SQUADRON FOUR VW-4
By Robert G. Lisi
As a unit of the Joint Hurricane Warning Service, the Navy has been performing aerial hurricane reconnaissance since 1943. Various naval aviation squadrons have been assigned this task and through the years many different types of aircraft have been employed. Patrol bomber aircraft, seaplanes, anti-submarine aircraft, radar reconnaissance aircraft, and even jet and propeller fighter planes have flown into hurricanes to collect weather information. Volumes of tropical weather information have been collected and many improvements in hurricane forecasting have been made as a result of these flights. But of more immediate concern to the civilian populous and to the Navy is the early warning of the approach of destructive storms and hurricanes.
The official title of the present day Hurricane Hunters is most Appropriate:
Airborne Early Warning Squadron FOUR, or in naval jargon, VW-4. VW-4 is the only naval squadron on the continent providing advance warning against the approach of destructive tropical storms and hurricanes. The squadron has been providing this service since 1953 and is the seventh naval aircraft squadron assigned to the mission of hurricane reconnaissance.
During the first few years of hurricane reconnaissance, the Navy used aircraft from various naval activities in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean areas. The first aircraft used was the PBM Mariner seaplane. In 1945, Navy Patrol Bomber Squadron 114 (VPB-114), stationed at Masters Field, Miami, was assigned the task of making the reconnaissance flights, using the famous World War II patrol bomber, the PB4Y Privateer. From 1946 to 1949 the Privateers continued the hurricane flight while the squadron's designation was changed to Weather Squadron Three (VPW-3), Meteorological Squadron THREE (VPM-3), and Heavy Land Based Patrol Bomber Squadron THREE (VPHL-3). In 1949 Patrol Squadron TWENTY-THREE (VP-23) was commissioned at the Naval Air Station, Miami, for the job. The forerunner of VW-4 was Navy Weather Squadron TWO (VJ-2), commissioned during the 1952 Hurricane season at NAS, Jacksonville, Florida. The following year, the Hurricane Hunters replaced the Privateers with P2V Neptune, and in that same year the squadron's designation was changed to Airborne Early Warning Squadron FOUR.
Hurricane reconnaissance techniques have improved greatly during recent years. Squadrons VPB-114, VPM-3, and VPHL-3 contributed to the research and initial development of the famous low-level penetration technique stated in 1943. This method has been used by the Navy for more than twenty years.
Weather reconnaissance, using this method, is performed at an altitude of 500 to 1,000 feet, with penetrations into the hurricane eye also being made at this altitude. Thought by many to be the most dangerous type of flying in the world, time tested procedures and highly trained flight crews have reduced the danger to a minimum. Historians are amazed to learn the in over twenty three years of Navy hurricane flights in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico using this method, only one plane has been lost. This occurred in 1955 when an aircraft of VW-4, a P2V Neptune, was lost with all hands in the Caribbean while penetrating the eye of Hurricane Janet.
With the advent of powerful long range airborne radar, a new aircraft was added the long list of planes making storm flights. In 1955 the Hurricane Hunters received the first of the WC-121N Lockheed Super Constellations and by 1958 the Neptunes were replaced by the "Connies". New techniques were devised and weather reconnaissance underwent a radical change. Weather information which once took days acquire can now be gathered on one meteorological flight. Conditions in an area of 200,000 square miles can be observed with one sweep of the powerful airborne radar. One Navy weather flight can provide information of an area encompassing 1,500,00 square miles. Needless to say, electronics has revolutionized weather reconnaissance as well as every phase of tropical meteorology.
Budding hurricanes are now spotted by satellites which circle the globe to give up to the minute information on the weather. In the midst of this revolution is VW-4, collecting large quantities of information, developing new projects, and aiding in the research and statistics of tropical meteorology.
To cope with the ever increasing demands of the scientific community, the squadron has inaugurated an active modernization program with one of its aircraft acting the role of a flying laboratory. New and experimental equipment is tested and evaluated under actual conditions aboard this aircraft before being incorporated into other aircraft. Through this program have evolved new and more accurate ways to measure more weather perimeters than ever before. New electronic breakthroughs have reduced the weight of instruments while increasing their range and performance. Because of this modernization program the squadron's mission was changed in May of 1965 to that of year round oceanographic and meteorological support to cooperating forces.
In 1960 the Hurricane Hunters moved from NAS Jacksonville Florida to the U.S. Naval Station, Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. In January of 1965 the squadron officially moved back to their former home at NAS Jacksonville. However, they still maintain a detachment in Puerto Rico to provide better year round weather reconnaissance in the Caribbean and Atlantic waters.
VW-4 also participates in various operations and projects other than hurricane reconnaissance. The squadron is assigned the task of weather and sea condition reconnaissance flights in conjunction with the rescue and recovery operations entailed with each Project Gemini space shot. The Hurricane Hunters also take part in various fleet exercises, including Testex, Snoopex, NATO AEW and ECMEX, as well as an annual deployment to Rota, Spain, for meteorological training flights under the control of Fleet Weather Central, Rota.
In addition, VW-4 has taken an active part in Project Stormfury. Project Stormfury is a joint Navy and Weather Bureau (Environment Science Services Administration) weather experimental program. The objective of Project Stormfury is the design and execution of a series of experiments on hurricanes for better understanding, prediction, and possible eventual control of some aspects of these severe storms. Project Stormfury has developed from a single aircraft experiment in 1961to a complex series of experiments simultaneously employing eleven aircraft in 1965. The experiments planned for 1966 and future years (1967,1968 and 1969) are an ever expanding continuation of previous experiments that have led to the development of new theories and techniques that must be tested. Phase One (Cumulus experiment) of these experiments was completed in July and August of 1965. Phases Two (Eyewall experiment) and Three (Rainband experiment) have been planned for execution on the first hurricane that is fully developed and situated at least 36 hours away from land, based on average hurricane movements during the past 50 years.
Since aerial hurricane reconnaissance began, over 350 hurricanes and tropical storms have been investigated. Recently attaining the mark of 50,000 accidents free flying hours, VW-4 logged over 10,000 of these long and arduous hours in actual hurricane reconnaissance. A total of 770 penetrations into the actual "eye" of hurricanes have been made. Flying at altitudes of below 1,000 feet, the men of VW-4, in their 70-ton Constellations, encounter winds as high as 150 miles per hour.
VW-4 is justly proud of it's accomplishments. Each spring, as a new hurricane season begins, the squadron becomes more conscious of the fine traditions established and inherited from the Hurricane Hunter of the previous years. It has no parallel in the history of aviation. The simple realization that each flight into a storm will contribute to saving hundreds of lives is the impelling factor for the continued high morale and feeling of accomplishment enjoyed by the men of Airborne Early Warning Squadron FOUR--- the world famous
Navy Hurricane Hunters!
In 1971 the WC-121Ns were replaced by WP-3A Orions. Four years later, the Navy's famous Hurricane Hunters was decommissioned in April 1975.
Research for the article was done by Robert G. Lisi. Mr. Lisi served with VW-4 from October 1967 to November 1969. As an aircrewmen he logged many hours into hurricanes (Camille Aug. 69) and missions (Apollo 7, Stormfury) and was awarded the Air Medal .
PHOTOS OF VW-4
Photo 1 - Squadron Insigna
Photo 2 - A/C Buno # 143198
Photo 3 - Mr. Lisi in front A/C # 4 in Bermuda.
Photo 4 - Aircrew # 1, Mr. Lisi is in the front row, 3rd from left, NAS Jax.
Photo 5 - A/C BUNO # 137895
Photo 6 - A/C BUNO # 137895
Photo 7 - Aircrew proud of tracking two USSR subs in the Med.