Early 26th OWS forecasts help save lives, equipment

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Patrick Brennan
  • 26th Operational Weather Squadron
For nearly twelve hours on April 14, a severe weather outbreak tore across the Midwest, devastating parts of four-states with tornadoes, lightning, damaging winds and hail.

This destructive complex of thunderstorms demolished buildings, ripped trees from the ground, and battered Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa with baseball-sized chunks of ice.

Thankfully, the 26th Operational Weather Squadron stood ready, notifying the sites in its Area of Responsibility as early as three days before the start of the event, granting key decision-makers at 25 Department of Defense locations the time to prepare and minimizing both loss of life and damage to military assets.

The 26th OWS oversees the southeastern United States, providing resource protection for an area that includes Kansas and Missouri, extends south through Texas and east to the Atlantic Ocean, totaling 13 states and approximately 900 million square miles of land.

"The 26th OWS sees a variety of weather, from significant severe weather in Tornado Alley to the majority of U.S. tropical activity along our coastal zones," said Maj. Hugh Freestrom, 26th OWS director of operations. "We also have several unique missions within our AOR, ranging from Whiteman's B-2 Spirit missions, to Fort Benning's Army Airborne Training, to Fort Polk's Joint Readiness Training Center.

"In total, we support 5,300 aircraft worth over $160 billion, with the daunting responsibility for the safety of more than 300,000 personnel," he added.

For this particular severe weather scenario, 26th OWS senior leadership identified the potential for destructive weather on April 11, producing a Threat Assessment that warned north Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas of the severe weather outbreak.

On April 12, the squadron created a Special Weather Statement for the same area, noting the progression of a strengthening low pressure system that would carve a swath of devastation through Kansas and cause damaging winds, large hail and tornadoes.

Around 5 a.m. on the morning of April 14, the 26th OWS issued severe weather watches for sites in Oklahoma and Kansas, providing 10 hours of advance notice of tornadoes that would impact operations at the Smoky Hill Air National Guard Range in Salina, Kan., and 17 hours of advance notice of a tornado that would eventually strike McConnell AFB, Kan., at approximately 10:39 p.m.

The pinpoint accuracy of the 26th OWS forecasts and three days of advance notice prompted the evacuation of 16 KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft and the hangaring of a further 10 aircraft, resulting in the resource protection of over $1 billion in aircraft assets, in addition to facilitating the precautions taken by the base population of over 8,000 personnel.

Airman 1st Class Joshua Taylor, a 26th OWS forecaster, issued the tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings for McConnell AFB one hour and seven minutes of advance notice, far exceeding the required fifteen minutes.

"I personally feel that no amount of training really prepares you for severe weather," Taylor said. "Experience of these events is what really allows a forecaster to grow, and fully understand what was previously read or lectured in a class."

In total, this tornado outbreak unleashed 94 confirmed tornadoes, ranging in strength up to "EF4" on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, indicating wind speeds up to 200 miles-per-hour. The Storm Prediction Center collected 122 separate reports of tornadoes, as well as 87 reports for damaging winds and 167 for large hail. Damage estimates for the affected area are unknown, but estimates are as high as $283 million in Wichita alone.

The 26th OWS issued more than 200 weather products, to include 82 weather warnings, alerting sites in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri of this violent outbreak of tornadoes and severe thunderstorms.

It is safe to say that without the round-the-clock dedication and expertise of the forecasters of the 26 OWS, the extent of the damage wrought by this disaster would have been far, far greater

"Honestly, I feel a great relief that personnel and other assets [on McConnell Air Force Base] were unharmed and thankful that it was not worse," Taylor said.

"I'm real proud of the 26th OWS," Freestrom said.

"From senior leadership and trainers issuing the Special Weather Statement four days out, to the shift supervisors and weather forecasters refining the threat area and working with the local weather flight fine-tuning the forecast and issuing the appropriate warnings with phenomenal lead time," he continued. "The folks at the 26th OWS find ways to make things happen. They are true professionals and are extremely responsive to life-threatening situations."