Forecast calls for blue skies with good chance for relief

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Ty Foster
  • Joint Special Operations Air Component Public Affairs
When a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Port au Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 12, 2010, the men and women of Air Force Special Operations Command responded - quickly and decisively.

Many thoughts were running through their minds, but only two were wondering, "How's the weather?"

Captain Dan Santiago and Tech. Sgt. Chris Patterson, both from the 1st Special Operations Wing weather flight, deployed within hours of notification. Over the course of their deployment in support of Operation Unified Response, they faced many challenges with one common solution: a can-do attitude.

With base-building and humanitarian aid supplies as cargo priorities, their standard complement of weather equipment was left behind. Instead, Capt. Santiago said, the team "made do" with their Kestral pocket weather sensor and a compass.

Compounding the difficulties they faced, the Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport's instrument landing system was offline after the earthquake. That meant incoming and outbound air traffic had to be vectored using visual flight recognition, the weather officer said.

"If the ceiling and visibility dropped below 1,500 feet, three statute, the airfield would be closed," Capt. Santiago said. Closing an airfield during a surge of humanitarian relief supplies and support would have led to an enormous international uproar.

"In order to keep the airfield open and safe, we needed to determine accurate ceiling heights and visibility without the aid of any fixed equipment," he said. To overcome their technological shortfall, Capt. Santiago and Tech. Sgt. Patterson devised a simple, yet effective plan.

Tech. Sgt. Patterson said they solicited pilot report inputs from the flood of inbound air traffic. They compiled the data and used nearby mountain range elevations to gauge cloud levels. Additionally, they made a visibility chart using a laser range finder and buildings in Port au Prince.

Ceiling, check. Visibility, check. Wind?

The confined ramp space and glut of aircraft transiting the base drastically hampered the team's ability to secure accurate wind readings.

"The small amount of open space on the airfield was quickly overtaken by pallets of water and meals ready to eat. Everywhere we turned, there were C-130's with engines running offloading cargo and Blackhawk helicopters with rotors turning loading cargo. Getting an accurate measurement of wind speed and direction was not going to be easy," Tech. Sgt. Patterson said.

"In order to determine accurate wind data, we again had to be as creative as possible," he said. "We used flags that were being flown around the airfield, as well as the smoke trails from numerous nearby fires to get an idea of wind direction.

"For wind speed, we waited for lulls in aircraft activity and rush out to get an observation," he said. "Then we correlated that wind speed with how much the flags were being wind whipped. This gave us an idea of what effect different wind speeds would have on the local area."

With only one weather station in Haiti and no real pre-deployment prep time, the dynamic weather duo had to spin up their knowledge of Haiti's weather systems and how meteorological changes might affect the immense mission at hand.

Flash flooding, the captain said, is one of the biggest weather threats in Haiti. In the wake of the devastating earthquake, rains would compound the arduous relief and recovery efforts.

"We needed to be ready to provide accurate forecasts on the rain threat within hours of our arrival," Captain Santiago said. "To do that, we went back to the basics of tropical meteorology, (Meteorological Satellite) analysis, and limited-data forecasting to provide accurate forecasts."

Their ability to derive accurate forecasts through creative measures directly impacted the success of the Joint Task Force Haiti mission.

During a morning update, the JTF Haiti commanding general, Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, was very concerned about the possibility of rain and its impact on the delivery of humanitarian aid, said Col. Buck Elton, Joint Special Operations Air Component commander for JTF Haiti. The weather team's accurate forecasting enabled the JTF commander to maintain focus on the Government of Haiti's relief priorities.

"Armed with the weather forecast provided by my weather team, I advised the JTF commander that the chance of rain was isolated and would have minimal impact on operations," Colonel Elton said.

"On that particular day, it would have been easy to just look at a meteogram and tell the commander it was going to rain," Capt. Santiago said. "But we knew that we needed to do better and provide more value for our commander than that.

"Our ability to use our entire weather skill set, combining not only model data but also our knowledge of tropical weather and our analysis of the synoptic-scale situation from METSAT, allowed us to improve on the forecast the model was pointing us towards," he said. "Because of that we were able to keep the entire JTF from making an unnecessary change to their priorities, and kept crucial humanitarian aid flowing to the people who needed it to survive."

Despite their lack of weather equipment, primitive living conditions, no running water, and continual earthquake aftershocks, the weather team was steadfast to providing information the AFSOC team required to provide the vital aid needed by the Haitian people.

So what's in the forecast now?

"Fair skies and a good chance for relief," the captain said. That's a forecast the citizens of Haiti can count on.