JBLE weather warriors: The first line of defense against nature's wrath

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jason J. Brown
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Weather affects everyone. From a flightline mechanic turning wrenches on fighter jets to a financial specialist crunching numbers at their desk; from Soldiers practicing land navigation in the woods to little leaguers swinging for the fences - all Airmen, Soldiers, civilians and family members are impacted by the weather in one way or another.

As a result, knowing what the weather will do ahead of time is essential to keep the installation and its people safe.

The Airmen of the 1st Operations Support Squadron weather flight accept this challenge, using cutting-edge technology and comprehensive meteorological training to keep Joint Base Langley-Eustis high and dry when the weather is at its worst.

The weather flight's staff of 20 Airmen provides meteorological forecasts for Langley Air Force Base and Fort Eustis to support each installation's variety of missions, ranging from flying operations, land-based training, force support activities and emergency management and response.

Eyes in the sky

At Langley, a majority of the flight's mission is supporting the 1st Fighter Wing's F-22 Raptor and T-38 Talon flying program. Without timely and accurate weather monitoring and forecasting, the jets can't leave the ramp, which prevents fighter squadrons from maintaining proficiency and mission readiness.

Similarly at Fort Eustis, forecasters provide up-to-the-minute information to fixed and rotary-wing aviators at Felker Army Airfield, home to several reserve, National Guard and experimental aviation units.

Forecasters analyze data to give pilots complete weather situational awareness, including cloud ceiling, visibility, temperature, wind speed and direction, precipitation - all factors that affect where, when and how long pilots can fly. Before pilots even step to their fighters, forecasters brief them face-to-face about what to expect.

"We do our best to get those aircraft out to complete their mission as opposed to simply grounding them due to weather," said Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Rich Corey, the 1st OSS weather flight superintendent. "We want to find what the weather is going to do, and be able to leverage that knowledge to get the mission accomplished so they can get their training completed."

"Good weather" and "bad weather" are often misnomers, as there is more than meets the eye in terms of what's happening - and how it affects the flying mission. Forecasting capabilities allow the weather team to help mission planners maximize training time in the sky by selecting optimal areas and timeframes to fly.

"Even on a 'good' weather day, we're looking ahead to interrogate the next system to see what the weather is going to do then," said Air Force Capt. Justin Puckett, 1st OSS weather flight commander. "If we can get airspace reserved that isn't going to be impacted, that's more opportunities for our pilots to fly their training missions in order to stay current and ready to go should a contingency operation break out, or even for their next deployment."

Beyond the flightline

While most of the weather flight's operations center around each installation's flying mission, their forecasts provide weather data to tenant units and support agencies to assist in mission and training plans.

According to Puckett, the NASA Langley Research Center adjacent to Langley AFB uses the forecasters' flood projections to implement mitigation efforts on their campus.

In addition, Corey said force support programs use weather outlooks to plan events and alert patrons to take shelter in the event of severe weather. For example, the 633rd Force Support Squadron Fitness Assessment Cell team checks with the weather flight daily for forecasts in order to plan physical training testing for Airmen, as precipitation, wind speed and temperature affect the availability of outdoor PT testing.

Air Force Master Sgt. Nicky Brown, the flight's Fort Eustis weather station chief, and his team of forecasters provide data to support the various missions at Fort Eustis. The 1st OSS weather flight's forecasts help Service members from all branches of the military and local civil authorities safely train in the post's training areas and ranges, as well provide marine forecasts for the 7th Sustainment Brigade's maritime mission at 3rd Port.

"Our forecasts are out there for anyone to use. There are many organizations we don't have regular communication with that can still use our weather data to help plan their operations," Corey explained. "It's a huge spectrum compared to what most people assume we do."

Tropic thunder

Hampton Roads is no stranger to severe tropical weather. The area typically experiences effects from one to two tropical systems annually, and occasionally falls in the path of powerful storms, most recently in October 2012, when "Superstorm" Sandy tore through the region. Hurricanes Irene in 2011 and Isabel in 2003 resulted in millions of dollars in damage to the installation due to extreme winds and flooding.

Monitoring tropical systems and tidal activity is a constant task because of Langley's geographical position on a low-lying peninsula amongst wetlands and waterways -- especially during the Atlantic hurricane season.

In the battle against tropical storms, the weather flight is the catalyst in the emergency management chain, providing crucial data for leadership to implement appropriate measures.

Puckett said the weather flight is "the indicator," keeping a close eye on potential storm systems every day. When models indicate the possibility of a storm system impacting the area, the forecasters track the system and prepare daily updates for wing leadership, even if a storm isn't projected to make landfall.

"Regardless whether or not [tropical storms] actually make landfall, we'll at least see rain bands and high tides, being so low and close to sea level," Puckett said. "When it rains, [runoff] doesn't have anywhere to go a lot of the time because the water is right there."

Puckett said 5.2 feet is the flood threshold for Langley, which means any tidal activity above that mark will lead to flooding of low-lying areas on the installation. When tides are projected to rise above that level, the weather flight alerts 633rd Air Base Wing leadership as soon as possible to implement flood mitigation efforts, including sandbagging, vehicle storage and, in extreme cases, evacuation.

When a tropical storm is projected to directly impact the installation, the flight deploys a ride-out team to remain on the base throughout the duration of the storm, providing around-the-clock updates to commanders. Puckett and three forecasters spent more than five days at their operations center through the duration of Hurricane Sandy.

While protecting JBLE's assets is a major priority for the forecasters, ensuring the base populace is safe remains paramount.

"Taking care of our people is most important. It's easy to get the jets out of here, but it's not always easy to get people out of here," said Corey. "Our weather forecasts and flood projections help security forces know what areas to evacuate and cordon off in the event of a storm surge or other severe weather event."

The meteorological mindset

Puckett considers Air Force forecasters to be among the best trained weather professionals in the nation. Each Airman attends a comprehensive nine-month technical training course, where they routinely practice actual weather observation and forecasting.

Weather Airmen do on-the-job training every day for two years at their first assignment, the captain explained, which provides the Air Force with an "undeniable reach-back support that no other fighting force in the world has."

"Training was intense, but it genuinely prepared me to get to a base, jump in and start forecasting the weather," said Staff Sgt. Adam Ybarra, a forecaster with the weather flight.

Even with the newest technology and razor-sharp forecasters, predicting what the weather will do is "an imperfect science." Sometimes, forecasters simply get it wrong.

Puckett and Corey agree that missing the mark on weather forecasts is the hardest part of being an Air Force forecaster.

"I know our forecasters out there pride themselves on being right all the time, so the days we are wrong hurt the most because we like to support this installation by giving them the 100 percent right information all the time, but that's just not always the case," Corey said. "The weather sometimes is truly unpredictable."

On the other hand, getting a forecast right is the most rewarding aspect of a career in weather. During Hurricane Sandy, Puckett and his team advised installation leadership that storm surge associated with the storm would be between five and seven feet, with six to eight inches of rainfall and maximum wind gusts to 50 knots.

The forecasters hit the nail on the head. Tidal surge peaked at 6.92 feet, the base recorded 7.1 inches of rain and wind gusts topped out at 44 knots.

Puckett said the satisfaction in correctly forecasting weather events comes not so much from being right, but more from ensuring the base's people and assets are safe.

"If everyone is safe and there's no major damage that we could've avoided, that's what we consider a success," Puckett said. "We want to make sure first and foremost that our people are safe, and secondly that the installation is protected. We drive our support to Joint Base Langley-Eustis to keep everyone safe."