It's a 'shamal world' for combat weather Airmen

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Mareshah Haynes
  • 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Some Airmen here have jobs to predict the future. They don't predict winning lottery numbers or the location of a special someone; combat weather forecasters predict something more precious to flight operations than money or love -- they predict the weather.

Ten Airmen assigned to the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron Combat Weather Flight provide accurate weather information to protect base assets including personnel, structures, equipment and the airfield from adverse weather conditions such as high winds, heavy rains and lightning.

Perhaps the most salient weather conditions combat weathermen face at Joint Base Balad are haboobs and shamals, dust storms that occur frequently during the spring and summer months.

Haboobs, which seem to appear from out of nowhere and disappear just as suddenly, occur when thunderstorms collapse and the winds from the storm stir up the dust from the ground, said Senior Airman Brian Perry, a 332nd OSS combat weather forecaster deployed from Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. Shamals, can last anywhere from hours to days, and are caused by summer winds blowing over the country.

While there are many scientific explanations and measurements used in weather forecasting, predicting the weather accurately is still a gamble.

I remember the first thing they told me in (technical training) school," said Staff Sgt. Donald Blasini, a 332nd EOSS combat weather forecaster, who is deployed from Shaw AFB, S.C. "Weather is not an exact science. It's you against Mother Nature. You have no control. The odds that you have it right are one in 10. The odds that you're wrong are nine in 10."

"We have to forecast all the different types of weather events that can happen," Airman Perry said. "It can be a headache at times, but when you get something right, it gives you a good feeling."

The weather forecasters also support the flying mission as American and coalition aircraft routinely fly in and out of Joint Base Balad.

Every time an aircraft is launched, the pilot requires a weather briefing to see find out if the weather conditions will allow for a safe arrival and departure as well as fair conditions en route, Sergeant Blasini said.

"If the answer to all those questions is yes, then it's a go (from weather)," Sergeant Blasini said. "If they take off while we're having good weather and the weather changes rapidly, we have steps to follow to get those birds recalled as soon as possible."

More than 10,000 sorties have flown out of Joint Base Balad in 2008. The weather forecasters ensured all the aircraft -- including F-16 Fighting Falcons, C-130 Hercules aircraft, MQ-1 Predators, helicopters and transient aircraft -- were operated within their respective operational weather limits. High winds and low visibility are a few variables that can affect the flying mission.

"(Combat weather forecasters) are vital to our flying operations," said a pilot assigned to the 77th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. "They advise us if the winds exceed tailwind threshold, which means we need to switch runways to takeoff in a different direction. They help us stay within the operating limits of the aircraft and if we went outside those limits, it's possible something bad could happen."

There are four different positions within the flight that Airmen fill to accomplish the weather mission: Observer, mission execution forecaster, terminal aerodrome forecaster and briefer.

"The mission execution forecaster provides the weather information pilots need to fly from this airfield and return and the weather of the other airfields," Airman Perry said. "The terminal aerodrome forecaster provides a 24-hour forecast for a five-mile radius around the airfield. The briefer coordinates the briefings for (pilots of) any airframe that is here."

The observer mans a position in the air traffic control tower and monitors the information received from weather equipment on the airfield.

"There are few airfields in the Air Force that still use a human observer," said Staff Sgt. Richard Skelly, a 332nd OSS weather forecaster deployed from Andrews AFB, Md. "Most airfields are switching over to an automated system that (human observers) back up. In this location we don't have (that equipment), so we're the primaries."