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Through the eyes of hurricanes

Flying for commercial airlines was too boring for Nicholls grad Sean Cross. Flying directly into hurricanes is more his speed. As part of the U.S. Air Force Reserve’s “Hurricane Hunters,” Cross conducts risky business to keep coastal residents safe.

Hurricane Hunter Sean Cross 2012

Hurricane hunter Sean Cross has flown directly through the hurricane eyewalls more than 125 times. Season two of “Hurricane Hunters” is tentatively scheduled to begin June 17.

Major Sean Cross (BS ’94) felt a little nervous. Maybe more than a little nervous. Throughout his career as a pilot for the U.S. Air Force Reserve and commercial airlines, he had been trained to avoid weather systems. But this mission required him to do the exact opposite.

As a new member of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, better known as the “Hurricane Hunters,” Cross knew of the job’s risks. But what motivated him were the rewards, the potentially life-saving data he could help provide.

At Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., Cross and four other crew members boarded a WC-130J jet and headed for Bermuda, where Hurricane Erin was churning. His childhood dream of being a hurricane hunter was coming true — but slowly the mission turned almost nightmarish.

To collect storm readings, Cross flew right through Hurricane Erin’s eyewall at 10,000 feet. After getting his first dose of hurricane-strength turbulence, he steered the aircraft inside of the storm for nearly six hours, trying to define its loosely organized eye. The flight drug on for a record-breaking 14.5 hours.

Exhausted but exhilarated, Cross called his mom over the plane’s high frequency radio network to assure her that he was safe. “It doesn’t matter how old you are; you’re still mom’s baby,” Cross says.

The next morning — Sept. 11, 2001 — as the crew was cranking the aircraft’s engines, preparing to return for Biloxi, the unthinkable happened.

“It was an interesting time for our country and an interesting time to be a part of this unit,” Cross says.

Hurricane Erin was quickly pushed to the back of the news feed. In Mother Nature’s history, Erin barely left a mark — no casualties, only minor damage. But she’s seared into Cross’ memory.

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Hurricane Hunter Sean Cross 2012

The talkative, easygoing Sean Cross gets much airtime on the Weather Channel’s “Hurricane Hunters” series.

Eleven years later, Cross has flown more than 125 hurricane penetrations. Many have been less dramatic than his first. Others have been far worse.

Cross was the first hurricane hunter to fly into Katrina, when it was just an open wave of low pressure east of the Antilles islands. Two days before landfall, he saw Katrina’s emerging prowess as he flew into the then-Category 1 hurricane over the Florida Keys. Seven years later, to the day, he flew into Isaac, which was nestled in the same location.

For both hurricanes, Gulf Coast residents turned to the Weather Channel for the latest coordinates, probably unaware that Cross and his crew were the ones obtaining those numbers. But a new Weather Channel documentary series, Hurricane Hunters, offers viewers an inside-the-cockpit look at this unique squadron.

The six-episode first season, which aired this past summer, has been popular with weather enthusiasts and curious coastal residents alike. Season two, which was shot during the 2012 hurricane season, will begin airing in June 2013.

“People recognize me from the show,” Cross says. “They come up to me at lunch or after work and say it makes sense now; they understand what we’re doing and how our part plays into hurricane forecasting.”

The series has been a win-win for everyone involved. It’s helped educate the public about the role of the “Hurricane Hunters.” It’s brought the Weather Channel impressive ratings. It’s been a major recruiting machine for the Air Force Reserve, which has received countless calls from people interested in joining the unit. And unlike other reality shows, it’s been a true reflection of what it’s like to be a hurricane hunter. So true that it’s brought some new anxiety to the Cross family.

“My mom watched the show, and on the first episode, she texted me and said, ‘Oh, my God, I’m on the edge of my seat.’ She goes, ‘Man, now I’m really going to be nervous when you fly.’”

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The threat of approaching hurricanes becomes part of life’s backdrop along the Gulf Coast. While growing up in New Orleans, Cross remembers listening to his parents talk about riding out Hurricane Betsy in their small shotgun house in Uptown, and he recalls watching a local TV news special on the hurricane hunters.

“These guys were walking out the door to go fly the airplanes, and the sign over the door said, ‘Through these doors walk the world famous Hurricane Hunters.’ I remember that since I was young. I thought, ‘Oh yeah, that would be cool; that would be pretty neat.’ I always knew it was a possibility, but I didn’t quite know how to get there.”

After high school, Cross joined the U.S. Air National Guard and enrolled at Delgado Community College. With hopes of becoming an Air Force pilot, he transferred to Nicholls, which then offered a two-year aviation degree.

Hurricane Hunter Sean Cross 2012

Cross lives out his childhood dream each day, walking beneath the famous sign he first saw on a TV news special.

Cross planned to focus on his studies and bypass campus activities, but he soon became drawn in to residence life. He worked as a Resident Assistant (RA) in Millet and then Long halls before becoming assistant house director of Millet.

“It seemed like a good deal; you got a free room, and they paid you a little bit of money. It was fun,” Cross says. “I tell you, Long Hall was wild. It was never a dull moment over there.”

At the time, aspiring Air Force pilots had to have a bachelor’s degree and could not be older than 27 and a half to enter the training program.

“As I was pressing pretty hard to get my degree, attending school year-round, the flying part went to the side,” Cross says. “I realized I had to get a bachelor’s degree pretty quickly, and I had always been interested in owning my own business, so I got started in the management program.”

Upon graduation in 1994, Cross decided to change his plans. It didn’t look like the New Orleans National Guard was going to be able to send him to pilot training, so he moved to Florida, near his parents. He started a business raising money for local schools but wasn’t ready to give up on flying. One random day, Cross showed up unannounced at Duke Field, a small Air Force base north of Fort Walton Beach, and introduced himself.

“They say it’s all about timing and being in the right place at the right time; that is so true,” Cross says. “I just walked in the door at the right time. I met the commander; we hit it off; they happened to be setting up a new flying squadron. I worked in their training office for about a year and a half, and then the commander sent me to Air Force pilot training.”

But when Cross achieved his goal — becoming an Air Force Reserve pilot and flying for commercial airlines — he found that hauling people from city to city was boring. It wasn’t the career he wanted.

A friend of his had recently transferred to 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron and suggested that Cross apply. He jumped at the opportunity. Nothing about being a hurricane hunter sounded boring.

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Hurricane Hunter Sean Cross 2012

“I’ve been through torrential hail in the plane,” Cross says, “and when we landed, all the paint on the nose cone of the aircraft was peeled off due to the hail.”

Inside the cockpit of a C-130, Cross seems at home. He’s relaxed, telling storm stories and asking about Nicholls professors and colleagues. He’s the kind of man who doesn’t take himself too seriously but takes his job incredibly seriously.

After all, it’s his responsibility to make sure that the aircraft and all crew members make it through the mission safely. There’s no room for complacency. Seemingly smooth missions often turn violent without notice. While flying out of Hurricane Ivan’s eyewall in 2004, Cross experienced the most severe turbulence of his career thus far. The instrument panel bounced back and forth so rapidly that he couldn’t read the gauges at one point. It was over in 10 seconds. Ten long seconds.

“You come across these pockets of moderate to severe turbulence every now and then, and you think the plane’s going to come apart on you,” Cross says. “You’re being pounded by hail. The rain showers are so intense it looks like you’re being pushed through a waterfall, like you’re in a carwash because you can’t even see out the window. I’ve been through torrential hail in the plane, and when we landed, all the paint on the nose cone of the aircraft was peeled off due to the hail. That will get your attention.”

Cross is now a senior flyer among the squadron’s 40 pilots, half of whom only work part time. Five Air Force Reserve members board each mission: two pilots (who serve as aircraft commander and co-pilot), a navigator (who manages the flight plan), a weather officer (who guides the crew to a hurricane’s center) and a loadmaster (who secures cargo and collects weather data). By releasing dropsondes, weather balloon-type instruments, they are able to collect data on wind direction and speed, pressure and temperature and to determine where the eye is located.

According to the National Hurricane Center, the data provided by the hurricane hunters reduces the forecasted cone of uncertainty by 30 percent — making its forecasts more credible and reducing evacuation costs, which are estimated at $1 million per U.S. coastal mile.

“We pilots get all the glory, but the officers are the ones reading the data and relaying the information back to the National Hurricane Center,” Cross says. “I’m just the bus driver.”

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Hurricane Hunter Sean Cross 2012

Aboard a C-130, five Air Force Reserve members (including two pilots, a navigator, a weather officer and a loadmaster) provide data to the National Hurricane Center during each mission.

September 2012 was the calm before the storm. For the first time in 25 years, the hurricane hunters did not fly a single hour of tropical storm reconnaissance.

Then came Sandy. The squadron operated 24 hours a day for eight straight days. As chief scheduler, Cross organized crews for each flight and flew four of them himself. The so-called “perfect storm” led to some strange missions. One aircraft stalled, momentarily losing its ability to fly. Aboard the mission was a new pilot — a single mom — whom Cross had just trained. It took some finesse for the crew to lower the aircraft’s nose, power up the engines and regain control. On the south side of the storm, Cross himself experienced snow and quite a few bands of rough weather, including one they named “the finger of death.”

“There’s nothing more exciting than flying into a hurricane; it’s incredible to see what Mother Nature has created,” Cross says. “But we pay a price to fly this mission.”

During hurricane season, the unit is pretty much always on call. Some years are more active than others, but it’s impossible to predict. During the hurricane hunters’ worst season — 2005 — Cross flew 125 hours within 21 days — the maximum flight hours allowed by the Air Force.

Often hurricanes give little notice, making it difficult to have a normal family life. This October, Cross was able to attend the Chuck E. Cheese birthday party for his 3-year-old son, but every year, he’s sweating it, wondering if a hurricane will pull him away from the celebration. If a hurricane happens to be headed toward the Biloxi area, he must also worry about evacuating his family and protecting his waterfront home in between his intense work schedule. And the job’s not over once hurricane season ends; the squadron must log flight training hours and fly winter storm missions, collecting atmospheric data on large areas of low pressure.

“On my son’s first Christmas, I had to fly,” Cross says. “I landed Christmas morning at 5 and raced home. That’s one of those events in your life that you never forget. I walked right upstairs in my flight suit and woke him up for his first Christmas. He doesn’t realize it, but one day I’ll tell him when he’s old enough to understand.”

With the grueling hours, personal sacrifices and dangerous work, Cross can’t help but take it personally when people choose to put themselves in harm’s way by ignoring mandatory hurricane evacuations.

“We’re out there putting our lives on the line collecting data so that everyone else can stay safe,” he says. “There is a loss of life in practically every storm, and I do take it personally. It gets old after a while, seeing the destruction year in and year out. That part wears on you because you’re always seeing people’s lives turned upside down. But the rewarding part is knowing that I’m helping people, and some of those people are alive today because of our mission. That’s the great appeal of it.”

— Written by Stephanie Detillier, publications coordinator

This article originally appeared in the fall 2012 issue of The Colonel alumni magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

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