Toward the end of the spring, most people around the Baton Rouge area start counting down the days until summer begins; or football season; or, for parents, the day schools begin again; but very few count down the days until the beginning of hurricane season.
When the start of hurricane season rolls around, most in the gulf south become extremely cautious and alert about weather conditions, especially when reports come that possible hurricanes begin forming in the Atlantic Ocean and start heading toward the United States.
Addis Fire Chief Richard Wood is among the select few who have often looked forward to a time of year where many people who live near U.S. coastlines become uneasy – hurricane season.
Wood, 60, until about a year ago, was a Hurricane Hunter in the U.S. Air Force.
Wood, who retired September 4, 2012 from the Air Force Reserves as an E-6 Tech Sergeant, worked as a propulsion technician with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron and the 403rd Maintenance Squadron. And though he spent most of his time in the Reserves, since he joined in 1989, working on plane engines, he also occasionally joined a crew and flew directly into hurricanes.
A Dream Deferred
When he finished his four-and-a-half years of active duty in the U.S. Air Force, Wood never imagined he’d be flying through hurricanes years later.
He had been stationed at Malstrom Air Force Base in Montana, working on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) during the Cold War.
He said that his dream was to work on airplane engines, but was unable to because of the timing of his active duty.
“I wanted to go to school to become a flight engineer, but at the time I went in to do that, Vietnam (War) was ending,” he said. “There were no openings for flight engineers.”
Wood had given up on his dream until he talked to an Air Force flight engineer while at an air show at Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport.
“They had one of the older planes sitting there on display and they were letting people go through, and the flight engineer was standing there and I started talking to him,” Wood remembered. “When I was talking to him, I said ‘man, you don’t know how close I was to becoming (a flight engineer),’ and he said ‘well we’re looking for people all the time at Keesler (Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss.)’
“I got some information, got a card, called the man, called the recruiter – next thing I know, I’m in. And that’s where I started.”
The eye of the storm
When he flew in missions with the Hurricane Hunting crew, Wood acted as a dropsonde operator – he was the person who dropped the dropsonde, an expendable weather reconnaissance device, into the eye of the hurricane.
“We drop it at 10,000 feet. It roughly takes 20 minutes to hit the water,” Wood said, adding that the device had a small parachute connected to it to ease the landing into the water. “(The dropsonde is) what’s getting the barometric pressure and the temperatures of the water. It’s telling us inside the storm what the storm is doing.”
Sitting in the Fire Sub-District #1 station on Highway 1 in Addis, Wood sat back in his chair and reminisced about, both, the danger and the beauty of flying straight through a hurricane wall into the eye of the storm.
“We would go into a southwest corner and fly into the storm with the tail wind - the navigator would navigate us through the less turbulent storm heads that are in the eye wall,” he said, making motions of a flying airplane and a standing hurricane with his hands. “Once we get into the eye wall, it’s beautiful. I’m not saying a hurricane is beautiful – but when you stop to think, you see the water and you see the blue skies or the stars if it’s at night and you see nothing but a wall of clouds.”
Wood said the wall of clouds while in the eye of a hurricane is known as the “stadium effect,” and likened the appearance to standing on the eye of the tiger at the center of the 50-yard line in LSU’s Tiger Stadium and looking around to see the massive stadium surrounding all 360 degrees of vision.
He went on to say that once in the center of the hurricane’s eye, he would prepare the cylinder known as a dropsonde and use a computer to fire the device into the sea, where it would record atmospheric pressures, which determine how strong a storm is, and project how strong it may become.
The pilot then determines the direction and the speed of the storm with a series of maneuvers that consist of making a 105-mile long X through the eye and turning into the storm’s headwind before exiting the storm.
Wood said that once a hurricane becomes a threat to America, a series of three airplanes share time occupying the storm, one at a time, 24-hours a day in order to maintain tracking of the storm’s speed, strength and direction.
“One (plane is) flying the storm, one is coming back from the storm, One’s getting ready to take the third mission of the plane that’s already in it – and you have a spare. The spare is ready to go at a minute’s notice,” he said.
A 4-hour rollercoaster
Wood recalled a 2012 storm, Hurricane Isaac, when a team of television journalists from Pennsylvania rode along in one of the airplanes during a mission.
“I remember the female newscaster that was doing it – she had a sound man and a camera man. When she landed on the ground, she was three shades of green, she kissed the ground and turned to an employee she was with and said ‘I’ll quit before I do this again,’” Wood chuckled. “Apparently she didn’t enjoy the ride.”
Wood said, though, that the job of Hurricane Hunter is more exhilarating than scary for those who can stomach it.
“It’s not scary… But who wants to be on a 4-hour rollercoaster?” he asked rhetorically, comparing the gut-dropping feeling of a rollercoaster to the feeling while in the turbulent winds of a hurricane while more that 10,000 feet in the air. He said that the winds are often so strong that the crew members’ voices on the headsets start sounding as though they are speaking into an oscillating fan.
“It’s very interesting work. It’s tiring. It’s tedious for maintenance people – you can work anywhere between 12-, 14-, 16-hour days,” Wood said nonchalantly. “You have to work until the plane gets fixed. The plane has to be ready to make its next mission.”
In his time in the Air Force, Wood fulfilled childhood dreams of working on airplane engines, as well as working with the U.S. President.
“The job was exhilarating,” he said. “The missions were great - going from back working with the Presidential re-election in 2003 all the way to working with the Hurricane Hunters, even the time in desert was exciting (Wood has stints in Afghanistan and the Middle East in 2008), something I’ll never get to do again; something I dreamed of doing when I was little.”
Wood, who is currently an analyzer technician at Axiall, formerly Georgia Gulf, said that since his retirement from the Air Force he continues to stay in touch, regularly, with his former co-workers in the military.
He said the thing he misses most about his time in the service is the camaraderie, though he added that he plans not to lose touch with the men who became his brothers.
He said that by the time his time for retirement neared, he was a technician and instructor for C-130J model airplanes.
When he retired, he was awarded a special wire replica of a C-130, the type of airplane used for Hurricane Hunter missions, from the 403rd Propulsion Flight unit, showing their appreciation to his 23 years of service.
Wood became involved with the Addis Volunteer Fire Department in 2005 shortly after his daughter’s house caught fire.
He saw a need he believed he could fill by volunteering his time.
In June 2012 Wood was voted in as Addis’ Fire Chief after former chief Henry Melancon moved out of town limits and resigned the position, and fire department employees voted Wood into the position.
“Being elected as chief really shocked me. I wasn’t expecting that,” he said. “Everybody that’s in the department continues to tell me I’m doing a good job.”
Wood said that his time in the Air Force was a dream come true and that he loved and appreciated all the time he spent there.
He said that he is now looking forward to the new challenges that will arise.
One thing can surely be said about Richard Wood – whether a hurricane, a fire, or anything else, he will do his due diligence to run in the midst of a storm in order to help, protect and serve the greater good.