The Lost Hurricane Hunters 4: September 26th, 1955


The only Atlantic Hurricane Hunter flight to go down occurred on September 26, 1955. Snowcloud Five, a U.S. Navy P2V Neptune weather reconnaissance airplane flying out of Guantanamo, Cuba, was lost in Hurricane Janet, 300 miles southwest of Jamaica. Snowcloud Five was part of the Airborne Early Warning Squadron Four (VW-4), based at the Jacksonville, Florida Naval Air Station. Carrying a crew of nine and two reporters from the Toronto Daily Star, Snowcloud Five took off at 0630 local time, and performed its initial penetration into Janet at an altitude of 700 feet. At the time of the crash, Janet was a Category 4 hurricane with 145 mph winds. The aircraft sent back this transmission, then was never heard from again:

NAVY RECONNAISSANCE FLIGHT 5U93, OBSERVATION NUMBER FIVE, AT 1330 GMT (8:30AM EST), MONDAY, LOCATED AT LATITUDE 15.4 DEGREES N, LONGITUDE 78.2 DEGREES W. OBLIQUE AND HORIZONTAL VISIBILITY 3-10 MILES, ALTITUDE 700 FEET, FLIGHT WIND 050 DEGREES (NE) 45 KNOTS (52 MPH). PRESENT WEATHER LIGHT INTERMITTENT SHOWERS, PAST WEATHER SAME, OVERCAST AND SOME SCUD BELOW, SURFACE PRESSURE 1,003 MILLIBARS (29.62 INCHES), SURFACE WINDS 050 DEGREES (NE), 45 KNOTS (52 MPH). BEGINNING PENETRATION.

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Figure 1. Snowcloud Five, the U.S. Navy P2V Neptune weather reconnaissance airplane that went down in Hurricane Janet of 1955. Image credit: navyhurricanehunters.com

An intensive air and sea search operation combed a 300 by 200 mile region of the Caribbean for the airplane over the next five days. In all, sixty aircraft, seven ships, and three thousand personnel were involved. No trace of Snowcloud Five was ever found. A book called Stormchasers (David Toomey, 2002) provides a detailed story of the flight into Hurricane Janet, and provides some insight as to what may have gone wrong. Dr. Hugh Willoughby, former director of NOAA's Hurricane Research Division, speculated on the fate of Snowcloud Five in a review of Stormchasers that appeared in the February, 2003 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society: "The enlisted aerographer's mate was left behind that day in order to accommodate the Toronto Daily Star reporter. This key crew member was normally responsible for keeping the pilots aware of altitude by calling out readings from the only radar altimeter on board, located at the aerologist's station. Without him, the aerologist, Lt. (jg) William Buck, had to do two demanding jobs: He had to simultaneously read the bouncing, flickering altimeter and peer down from his Plexiglas bubble in the nose to discern the wind from streaks of foam on the sea. It is easy to imagine how he might have lost control of the situation as he struggled to keep the airplane safely above the waves and flying perpendicular to the wind towards the eye."

The crew members lost on the mission were:

Lt. Cmdr. Grover B. Windham Jr. of Jacksonville, FL, Plane Commander
LTjg Thomas R. Morgan of Orange Park, FL, Navigator
LTjg George W. Herlong of Yukon, FL, Co-Pilot
Aviation Electronics Technician Second Class Julius J. Mann, 22, of Canton, Ohio
LTjg Thomas L. Greaney, 26, of Jacksonville, FL, Navigator
Aviation Mechanic First Class J. P. Windham, Jr., 32 of Jacksonville, FL
Airman Kenneth L. Klegg, 22, of Cranston, RI
Aviation Electronics Man First Class Joseph F. Combs of Forest Park, NY
Aerologist William A. Buck, of Jacksonville, FL
Toronto Daily Star Reporter Alfred O. Tate
Toronto Daily Star Photographer Douglas Cronk

Robert Ballard, or other experts in finding sunken ships--I challenge you to find the wreckage of Snowcloud Five, and help bring to light the final fate of the only Atlantic Hurricane Hunter plane to go down in the line of duty!

Sources: The book, Stormchasers (David Toomey, 2002) provides a detailed story of the flight into Hurricane Janet, and is a good read. Other sources: The Florida Times-Union Jacksonville, Wednesday, September 28, 1955: "Navy Plane Missing With 11 Local Men".

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Figure 2. Damage to the town of Corozal, Belize, after Hurricane Janet in 1955. Janet intensified to a Category 5 hurricane the day after Snowcloud Five went down, and hit the Yucatan Peninsula near the Belize/Mexico border with 175 mph winds, killing more than 500 people. Image credit: corozal.com.