Weather agency helps commanders with mission decisions

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Before flying to support ground forces or attack a target, Air Force and Army pilots run through a lengthy preflight checklist. Getting a go from Air Force weather forecasters is on the list twice.

The meteorological data used by combat weather forecasters is collected by the Air Force Weather Agency here, which processes it into 800,000 useful products a day.

"We produce, as accurately as we can, weather modules and products that are taken by operators who use it in mission decisions," said Col. Ray Clark, Air Force Weather Agency vice commander.

Weather information for the entire planet is such a critical component of mission planning that more than 60 gigabits of data are downloaded by mission planners and forecaster to support operations across the world.

"If we are not doing our job effectively then we are at the mercy of the weather," the colonel said. "If we do our job correctly, then we can give the warfighter the ability to use the environment to our advantage in either a defensive or offensive posture to be able to further our goals and the goals of our nation."

The agency has 1,400 military and civilians worldwide observing weather, collecting and analyzing data, and forecasting meteorological events. Weather technicians at overseas bases and deployed locations grab the processed data and compare it with their local observations before briefing mission planners. They, in turn, observe weather and submit the data back to the agency.

"I loved supporting the Army," said Senior Airman Brandon Proctor, a weather broadcast technician who supported Army missions for two years while stationed at Coleman Barracks, Germany. "It was very beneficial to me just knowing what I did whether it was briefing a pilot who was transporting troops to briefing a medevac helicopter pilot who was getting ready to go rescue somebody."

Weather observers add ground equipment readings with information streaming in from satellites. Satellites provide so much up-to-the minute information for forecast modules that the agency has an entire section devoted to analyzing the data.

The section monitors and forecasts volcanic and tropical events and shares the products with several civilian agencies, said Tech. Sgt. Megan King, operations NCO of meteorological satellite applications.

The section is so fluent at the data analysis that it also serves as a backup to civilian weather agencies including the Washington Volcanic Ash Center and the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii.

"Every day we track three to five tropical storms, monitor four to eight volcanoes and we issue about 30 dust or smoke (information) products," she said. "It lets the user out in the field better verify their forecast or give additional information to the people they are briefing."

The agency doesn't solely collect data from ground facilities and satellites orbiting outside of the atmosphere. Weather acts differently at different altitudes. Military aircraft automatically fill in this measurement gap, all while flying their operational mission.

All military aircraft have instruments that read and record atmospheric information during flight and periodically transmit it. Readings taken while at 10,000 and 20,000 feet can enhance the formulas used to predict weather and increase reliability to the warfighter.

Spherical situational awareness -- or awareness of what can happen down the road -- is what Air Force weather analysts have been doing for a long time, Colonel Clark said. That is the whole business of forecasting -- what the environment is going to do in three, six, 12, 24 hours and beyond.

"What we are trying to do now is bring that information in a form -- a machine to machine form -- a more automated system to help quicken the decision-making process ... to help everybody with their awareness," the colonel said.