With hurricane season upon us, it’s hard to imagine flying into the heart of a hurricane and emerging triumphant and unscathed on the other side.
But for Kerr County residents Bill Sims and Rex Little, it was all in a day’s work during their time as pilots in the Air Force Reserves.
Sims spent three decades in the Air Force — active duty from 1970-73 and in the Reserves until 2003 — while Little spent from 1972-78 on active duty and became a reservist in 1986.
Both would retire as lieutenant colonels.
The Air Force Reserves require, at minimum, one weekend a month spent training and two weeks a year of active-duty service — although, in reality, units can be activated anytime, and the job can require a much greater commitment, Sims said.
As reservists, Sims and Little were “hurricane hunters” in the same squadron, serving on aircrews that flew into cyclones in order to gather weather data.
“They get satellite pictures in Miami, task the unit, call us up and say, ‘We need you,’” Sims said.
Then they’d take off to observe the storm with two pilots aboard, a flight engineer, a navigator, a dropsonde operator and a weather officer.
Little added that his role was as simple as it was specific: Fly
through the storm.
“You fly through wind, and you penetrate the storm — the eye of the storm — (then) you go out of the storm and come out,” Little said. “You’re getting the data, the hurricane update for the guys down in Miami; that airplane is responsible for that data.”
The dropsonde operator would take readings on the equipment for the team back in Miami, Sims said.
Sims and Little’s squadron flew a Lockheed C-130 Hercules, an American four-engine, turboprop military transport aircraft.
Sims noted that C-130s on weather missions were uniquely equipped and could withstand quite a beating.
“It was a hell of an airplane,” said Little. “It’s a workhouse. It’s like a Glock handgun. Good airplane, the C-130.”
Sims recalled that the rain that would greet him while flying into the storm was intense.
“It’s really unbelievable quantities of rain,” he said. “The windscreen looks like (the rain’s) on there 2 inches deep, and you’re going 180 knots. And the turbulence — there’s a period where it’ll rock you. It had your attention; you’re glued to the task at hand, flying at 10,000 or 5,000 feet.”
Little added that he doesn’t remember feeling afraid.
“When you’re young, you fancy yourself invincible,” he said. “If you’re sitting in that left (pilot’s) seat, you’d better believe you’re the best that ever was. There’s no room for nerves.”
Little said he, too, recalled an impressive amount of wind and rain.
“I was just enthralled and fascinated by it, seeing these huge waves and having the tops blown off of them,” he said. “That C-130 is just rocking and rolling — all that rain hitting the windscreen. … You can’t even see.”
Sometimes, Sims said, there would be low-level weather events that would require the pilot to fly at 1,000 feet, well below the clouds.
“The lower you are, now you have the sensation of speed, and that is always fun,” Little added.
Sims noted that proper precautions always were in place — shoulder harnesses whenever necessary, everyone buckled in, belongings strapped down.
Each individual mission was long, Little added — sometimes 12 hours at a time.
“One time I said, ‘We’re gonna need more donuts,’” he remembered with a laugh.
Little said the whole process was streamlined and well executed, and the crews were so disciplined that he always felt very safe.
Nowadays, Sims said, he pays a little more attention to news about weather events than most.
“Technical knowledge perks your ears up a bit more than average,” he said.
Ultimately, Sims and Little agreed: Being a hurricane hunter was often exhilarating and rarely scary. But above it all, it was a good time had by all.
“It was a college fraternity on steroids,” Little said with a chuckle. “I just had a blast. I liked the military.”
On drill weekends, the crew would be done by 4:30 or 5 p.m., he said, so 20 guys would hang out at a downtown restaurant in Biloxi, Mississippi, on a Saturday night.
Sims said that the best part of his career by far was the people he encountered along the way.
“You seldom ran into someone who wasn’t first-class,” Sims remembered. “You’re there — you’ve made friends for life.”