Looking for a break in the clouds

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III
  • Airman Magazine
On a miserable winter night here, Staff Sgt. Michael Ragsdale was working the graveyard shift.

Outside, a thick fog cut visibility to less than a quarter mile. The January 2008 temperatures averaged 30 degrees below normal, the country's coldest on record.

The cold weather wasn't all on his mind.

High overhead, a KC-135 Stratotanker circled, waiting to land. With fuel running low, the aircrew wanted to land their aging aircraft, which doesn't like cold weather.

At times like this it "can get intense," he said, while monitoring his radar. Then he walked outside to check the visibility.

Because the weather made it too dangerous to land, the pilot wanted to divert to another airfield. But that could cut short his mission capabilities.

Then Sergeant Ragsdale noticed the fog started to lift. He hit the airwaves -- calling the tanker to tell the pilot the break in the clouds would allow a safe landing.

"Moments like this are a reminder to how important weather forecasting is to the Air Force mission," said Sergeant Ragsdale, who is deployed from MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. "It gives me a sense of personal satisfaction as well."

Weather Airmen provide a service crucial to operations at Manas, home of the Air Force's lead refueling wing and the busiest mobility hub for operations in Afghanistan. The base, located in the northernmost region of Kyrgyzstan, sits in a "bowl" surrounded by mountain ranges. This can create erratic winter weather.

"Unpredictable weather plays a crucial role in everyday operations, particularly in the flying missions," Sergeant Ragsdale said.

Weather delays or cancellations may prevent aerial tankers from reaching aircraft over Afghanistan -- directly impacting ground and air operations.

The sergeant is used to bad weather. Having grown up on the South Carolina coast, a place routinely struck by hurricanes, he was fascinated with weather and its effects on the community. He would track storms and hurricanes, providing family members with forecasts and updates. Little did he know one day he'd be doing the same thing in the Air Force.

Analyzing weather conditions, preparing forecasts and issuing weather warnings is exactly why he joined the Air Force. It is his calling, Sergeant Ragsdale said.

During technical training at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., he learned the basic principles of meteorology. That included how to forecast weather elements such as clouds, visibility, winds and atmospheric pressure. And he learned how to read and interpret satellite imagery, climatology reports, computerized weather prediction models and Doppler radar imagery.

Sergeant Ragsdale said his Air Force career has been an adventure.

"One thing most people don't realize about Air Force weather forecasters is that we support all U.S. Army weather operations. The Army does not have weather forecasters," Sergeant Ragsdale said. "We can be stationed at any Army or Air Force location around the world."

The Air Force uses state-of-the-art equipment and highly trained Airmen to provide accurate forecasts. Customers are sometimes critical of forecasts. Sergeant Ragsdale takes it in stride. He knows forecasting isn't an exact science and sudden weather changes are not uncommon.

"Mother Nature is unpredictable and we're not psychics," he said. "I can't add up the number of times I've heard 'How's the weather?' or 'weather's easy, just walk outside.'"

But the sergeant knows there's a big difference in the forecasts he provides and what people receive from local television weather reports.

"The difference between me and the TV weatherman is that if he says there is no chance for rain and it rains, the worst-case scenario is you didn't bring an umbrella and you get wet," Sergeant Ragsdale said. "On the Air Force side, if my forecast is drastically wrong, the worst-case scenario is a potential disaster."

On any given day, Sergeant Ragsdale's forecast could save lives in the air and on the battlefield. That realization is what keeps him sharp and on his game.

As the fog lifted over Manas, and with Sergeant Ragsdale's help, the circling tanker dropped its landing gear. It made its approach and its wheels touched down safely on the Manas runway.

Then, almost on cue, the skies sealed back up.