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Ask Rufus: Lt. Col. Duckworth and the 'Surprise Hurricane' of 1943


Lt. Col. Joseph Duckworth is shown at his desk at Columbus Army Air Field in 1942. He became known as the

Lt. Col. Joseph Duckworth is shown at his desk at Columbus Army Air Field in 1942. He became known as the "Father of Air Force Instrument Flying," but to his friends in Columbus he was just "Joe Duck." In 1943, Duckworth became the first pilot to fly through a hurricane. Photo by: Courtesy photo


The AT-6

The AT-6 "Texan" was one of the airplanes used to train pilots at Columbus Army Air Field during World War II. It was in an AT-6 trainer that Lt. Col. Joseph Duckworth became the first pilot to fly through the eye of a hurricane and make weather observations.
Photo by: Courtesy photo



Rufus Ward



As Hurricane Irma tracked across the Caribbean last week, we got frequent updates of where it was and where landfall might be. We got an indication of how strong its was and the disaster that would befall wherever it hit.  


That was not always the case. Prior to the 1940s devastating hurricanes could surprise coastal communities, such as with the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Other than warnings from ships at sea, horrendous storms could strike with little notice.  


One of today's most important tools for tracking tropical storms and gauging their strength and potential are the Hurricane Hunters of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi. The story of their creation partly begins at Columbus Air Force Base. The first aircraft to fly through the eye of a hurricane and make weather observations was not a four engine WC-130J "Super Hercules" as flown by the Hurricane Hunters. It was a single engine AT-6 "Texan" trainer.  


Major Joseph Duckworth arrived at Columbus Army Air Field (then Kaye Field) in early 1942. He rented a Columbus antebellum home and merged not only into his work at the base but also into the social life of the town. The April 1942 Columbus Pilgrimage Guide included the home now known as "Magnolia Hill" as a "Star Home" occupied by Major Joseph B. Duckworth. To the people of Columbus he became known simply as "Joe Duck." 


Little did the citizens of Columbus know the important role in aviation that Col. Duckworth would play. That role became apparent in November 1942, when Duckworth's efforts to improve safety and better train pilots resulted in his accomplishments being featured in Time magazine. His innovations in instrument instruction and flying led to his being known as the "father of Air Force instrument flying." 


He is less well-known for making history when he and Lt. Ralph O'Hair took off on an adventure in an AT-6 Texan airplane one July morning. It was an adventure that changed the way we look at weather. 


During early 1942, the Army Air Force was experiencing an excessive rate of pilot training accidents and fatalities at all of its training bases. At the twin engine advanced flying school the Army had just opened at Columbus, base commander Col. Louie C. Mallory decided to do something about the problem. He assigned his training director, Major Joseph B. Duckworth, to figure out the problem and fix it.  


Many of the problems seemed to center on the twin engine A-29 Lockheed Hudson. Instructor pilots hated it and said it was "full of green dragons." It was the transition trainer to the B-26 bomber which combat pilots "loved." 


What Duckworth found was the instructor pilots were not being properly trained to teach cadets how to fly a trainer-bomber that was "mighty hot to fledglings." Duckworth reported back to Mallory and the qualifications to become an instructor pilot at Columbus were upgraded. In addition, a "Flying Evaluation Board" of four officers to evaluate and retrain instructors was established. He also found a deficiency in instrument flying training and started the "full panel attitude system of instrument flying." 


Between May and October of 1942 the number of students at Columbus doubled, but the number of accidents decreased by 44 percent. Soon instructor pilots from bases as far away as the Pacific Coast were sent to Columbus to be evaluated. Then in November of 1942, Major Gen. Ralph Royce put newly promoted Lt. Col. Duckworth's system in place throughout the entire 56 station Southeast Training Command. The innovative success story of Mallory and Duckworth was then featured in a Nov. 30, 1942, Time article titled "Teaching the Teachers." 


In 1943, Lt. Col. Duckworth became commander of the Army Air Forces "Instructors' School (Instrument Pilot)" at Bryan, Texas. It was there that Duckworth's adventure and aerial first occurred. On the morning of July 27, 1943, a hurricane was making landfall near Galveston, Texas. Duckworth and O'Hair were having breakfast with some veteran British pilots who were at the base learning the finer points of instrument flying. The British were kidding Duckworth because American airplanes were being flown away from the storm's path and they made jokes about the frailty of what they considered the unreliable AT-6 Texan. Duckworth got tired of the ribbing and, liking the Texan, bet the British a "highball" libation he could fly through the storm in the plane. No pilot had ever intentionally flown through a hurricane before as it was considered too dangerous. The British took Duckworth up on the bet and he and O'Hair had a AT-6 fueled up. 


They took off from Bryan Field and headed for Galveston in an AT-6 Texan single engine trainer. As they approached Galveston, the air traffic control tower at the Houston Airport asked them on the radio if they realized there was a hurricane. When informed of their plans, the tower asked where to send the search parties to find their wreckage.  


O'Hair later recalled "being tossed about like a stick in a dog's mouth" until they entered the eye. They completed the flight and returned to Bryan Field, the fist pilots to ever intentionally fly through a hurricane. Upon landing they were met by the base weather officer, Lt. William Jones-Burdick, who wanted to fly back through the storm and collect data. He climbed into the airplane and Duckworth flew through the storm a second time. Lt. Jones-Burdick made observation and kept a record, which showed the importance of the flight. 


The Air Corps quickly realized the value of flying into a storm to measure its intensity and provide better warnings. Prior to Duckworth's flight, the only information on the path and intensity of hurricanes approaching the coast came from ships, but in 1943 there were German U-Boats operating off the Gulf coast and ships were required to maintain radio silence. Because of that, the hurricane Duckworth flew into at Galveston had only been reported the day before it hit. It was called "The Surprise Hurricane" making landfall as a Category 2 storm and killing 19 people, injuring several hundred more and destroying two refineries. Within a year, regular reconnaissance flights were being made into tropical storms and hurricanes. Out of Duckworth's flight evolved the Air Force Hurricane Hunters and modern tracking and study of hurricanes. Today, the Air Force "Hurricane Hunters" still fly into storms and are based at Keesler AFB in Biloxi and lately they have been very busy. 


Col. Duckworth retired from the Air Force in 1955 and served for a time as the head of the safety bureau of the Civil Aeronautics Board in Washington, D.C. He died in 1964 in Battle Creek, Michigan. The significant innovations in pilot training developed by Col Duckworth began at Columbus Army Air Field. His legacy remains at Columbus AFB with the continued training of the world's best pilots. His memory is recalled in the Base Operations Building, which is named for him and contains a small display honoring him. 


Rufus Ward is a local historian. Email your questions about local history to him at [email protected]


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]


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