Worldwide weather system installations completed

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. (AFPN) -- The Electronic Systems Center here has wrapped up a five-year, $70 million effort to replace 110 fixed-based weather sensing systems at sites across the globe.

The center and the prime contractor, Coastal Environmental Systems of Seattle, Wash., completed the final installation in Southwest Asia Oct. 5, providing state-of-the-art weather sensors to the busiest airfield in that critical area of responsibility.

The fixed based system, called the FMQ-19, is a collection of weather sensors placed near runways. These sensors collect weather data, integrate it into a common format and transfer it to an operator display at base weather units, according to 1st Lt. David Wyatt of the 651st Electronic Systems Squadron, program manager for the system.

A typical suite is made up of a primary system and a secondary system. The primary unit consists of eight sensors which monitor winds, weather conditions, visibility, ambient light, temperature, lightning, rain and cloud height. The sensor in the secondary unit measures visibility, cloud height and wind.

"They automate the work previously done by observers," Lieutenant Wyatt said. "They save a lot of manpower and provide better data."

Their strategic placement at the take-off and touch-down points on the runway provides additional benefits, said Andy Galbadis, a site activation leader with the squadron.

"That's where the weather conditions that matter most to the pilot need to be measured," he said. "Weather data can spoil like sour milk. It has to be fresh, and has to be relevant, and conditions monitored right at those critical locations tend to be both."

In addition to reducing staffing needs, the FMQ-19s also replace aging legacy systems that had become difficult to maintain, said Dave Lamoreaux, the squadron site activation specialist who oversaw the effort.

"We're talking about late '60s and early '70s technology," he said. "The cost to keep them operational had become very high."

The old hardware also was limited in that each piece performed a separate function and provided an individual data point, which operators then had to manually enter and compile to get a comprehensive view. The new, integrated systems automatically collate all the data, providing operators with a common, real-time weather picture, Lieutenant Wyatt said.

When linked up with the new Tactical Forecasting System, the data from any individual FMQ-19 can be distributed to operational weather squadrons worldwide.

"This allows weather conditions almost anywhere to be factored into large-scale operations," said Pat Dagle, director of the 651st ESS. "The FMQ installations are thus a very significant part of our overall effort to fully and automatically integrate weather information into any Air Force planning environment."

The successful installations at so many global sites didn't come without challenges, Lieutenant Wyatt said. Program managers had to coordinate efforts between the contractor and each of the bases continually, ensuring that all site preparation was done on time and that any issues were addressed.

Those issues ranged from the relatively straight-forward to the completely unexpected.

"There was the queen's grass at RAF Lakenheath (in England)," Mr. Galbadis said. "It turned out to be Kentucky bluegrass given to her as a gift by someone in the United States, and it was protected by various British historical organizations, forcing us to engineer solutions around it."

They also faced a potential dinosaur archeological site conflict in England. At another location, concern for burrowing owls temporarily halted work; worry over turtles falling into trenches cropped up at yet another. Program managers even dealt with a "stolen top-soil" allegation.

In foreign locations, such as in Southwest Asia, issues such as host-nation agreements presented obstacles, Mr. Lamoreaux said. In the end, however, program officials worked through all of these things, and a lot of other challenges, to get the job done.

With the FMQ installations complete, the team is on to the next challenge, installing a follow-on system in a vast number of primarily smaller sites. Among them: two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

The squadron has selected Vaisala Inc. of Woburn, Mass, to provide those.

"We're thrilled about the success of the FMQ-19 installations, and we're excited about the follow-on effort," Lieutenant Wyatt said. "The bottom line is that we're providing a better, more integrated weather picture for our warfighters. That's what it's all about."