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Weather specialists forecast mission success

Master Sgt. James Gragg, 321st Contingency Response Squadron weather technician, sets up a tactical meteorological observation system during Exercise Swamp Devil at Lake Charles, Louisiana, July 26, 2020. The TMQ-53 is used to observe weather elements and relay information to pilots in real time. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Luther Mitchell Jr)

Master Sgt. James Gragg, 321st Contingency Response Squadron weather technician, sets up a tactical meteorological observation system during Exercise Swamp Devil at Lake Charles, Louisiana, July 26, 2020. The TMQ-53 is used to observe weather elements and relay information to pilots in real time. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Luther Mitchell Jr)

JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. --

When a weather warning pops up on your computer or phone, it’s probably time to take it seriously and prepare for what lies ahead. You may go outside and roll up your car windows or bring the dog inside.

In the 621st Contingency Response Wing, weather specialists play a critical role in executing the mission, safeguarding personnel and property, and updating squadron and contingency response element leaders to affect plans.

"We may be the first weather personnel deployed to a location, so the information we collect is vital in developing climatological trends and studies for an area," said Master Sgt. James Gragg, 321st Contingency Response Squadron weather specialist at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey.

Unlike other weather squadrons, CRW weather specialists are not equipped for sustained airbase support. They issue weather watches, warnings and advisories for threats like lightning and high winds while deployed, and coordinate with other operational weather squadrons for support.

Their primary job is weather data collection, analysis and dissemination. This includes taking routine and special weather observations using automated and manual techniques, as well as recording this data and submitting it to the 14th Weather Squadron, Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, for their archives.

The 14th Weather Squadron is the Air Force’s only climate operations unit that collects, protects and exploits authoritative climate data. They provide Devil Raiders with specialized products for planning and execution purposes. 

"They have a wealth of data that they can tailor to specific requests, which makes them a valuable asset in our line of work," Gragg said. 

Weather observers can continue observing and reporting weather conditions even if equipment breaks or communications fail by using a manual observation kit. A MOSKIT includes handheld lightning detectors, portable rain gauges, laser range finders, and devices for measuring winds, temperature, and atmospheric pressure. This skill is especially helpful when CRW personnel deploy to more remote locations.

Weather specialists assist in the planning phase of operations, providing seasonal weather assessments for areas of interest and update leadership teams on any looming weather, such as hurricanes and sandstorms.

About a year ago, during a short-notice deployment for the reopening of Prince Sultan Air Base, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, weather played an important role in supporting airbase operations and ensuring en-route personnel and equipment weren't affected.

"We had several days where wind conditions led to extremely reduced visibility," said Master Sgt. Don Killian, 621st Contingency Response Squadron weather specialist. "I would brief the weather to our leadership to mitigate downtime for our operations."

There are four active weather specialists in the CRW: two in each contingency response group between Travis Air Force Base, California, and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. 

Weather specialists attend training for up to eight months at Keesler AFB, Mississippi, for initial skill training. While there, they learn how to record weather observations using manual methods or meteorological equipment and analyze real-time weather conditions.

"There are many more tasks Air Force weather personnel get trained on, but these are the skillsets we utilize the most within the CR," Gragg said.

In-garrison, a weather specialist's primary job is to stay current on readiness training and maintain tactical weather equipment for deployment.

"We periodically go out to set up our tactical weather sensors to perform operations checks and make sure they are ready to deploy with us," Gragg said. "We also work with the 305th Operations Support Squadron weather team to get our annual re-certifications for observing and forecasting core tasks."

Tracking the weather may not be a glamourous job to some. Still, each day is different, and one weather forecast can be the difference between mission success and failure.

"The variety of weather we can experience around the world has always impressed me the most," Gragg said. "Maintaining a grasp of the fundamentals is important, but it doesn't keep you from constantly seeing and learning new things."