Sparring with Ernesto

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Rob Easley
  • 9th OWS
Always Alert! That is the motto of the 9th Operational Weather Squadron at Shaw AFB, S.C. Along the Atlantic coast they always have an eye on the tropics so that long before a tropical storm slams into the southeastern United States, 9th OWS forecasters are already hard at work preparing for impact. After all, the 9th OWS provides Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, Commander Ninth Air Force and United States Central Command Air Forces, and other commanders across the southeast, up-to-the-minute information on any tropical system that could impact operations.

To accomplish this major undertaking, it takes a highly effective OWS weather team working in tandem with Weather Flights to craft top-notch weather products used for key operational decisions. Ever vigilant, 9th OWS synopticians constantly monitor National Hurricane Center conference calls for updates about storm development, movement, and strength. If the NHC determines that a system will affect the southeast United States, 9th OWS synopticians and zone forecasters tailor the forecast to meet operational needs.

The first product 9th OWS forecasters build and post is a computer-generated map showing the forecast track of the storm. The second is known as the Tropical Cyclone-Threat Assessment Product, or TC-TAP, and is developed when zone bosses, after intense discussion with weather flights and synopticians, input expected weather into a spreadsheet listing all affected military installations. It details wind speed and duration, 72 hour rainfall totals, and the storm's closest point of approach to installations.

Forecasting for Tropical Storm Ernesto demonstrated the outstanding teamwork both inside the OWS and between the OWS and weather flights. Operational Weather Squadron synopticians had been tracking Tropical Storm Ernesto and providing graphics products for a week before he approached the coast. Well before Ernesto made landfall in the early hours of Aug. 30, the OWS zone bosses and site forecasters coordinated with weather flights in Florida and Georgia and developed and issued TAFs, weather watches, warnings, and advisories for dangerous lighting, strong winds, and tornadoes.

South Flight Zone Boss, Master Sgt. Stephen Babe, said, "Our team really pulled together--the coordination with affected weather flights was a key factor in protecting equipment and personnel."

When Ernesto moved back over the Atlantic Aug. 31, OWS synopticians and weather flight technicians updated critical data in the TC-TAP. As a result of this guidance, Charleston AFB, S.C. safely relocated its aircraft to Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio, far away from the path of the storm.

Tech Sgt. Gerald McPherson from the 437th OSS/OSW said, "The 9 OWS did an outstanding job coordinating with us to ensure we were on the same page." After a near miss at Charleston, Ernesto quickly set his sights on bases in North Carolina as it chugged slowly up the coast.

Before the storm made landfall again in North Carolina Sept. 1, zone bosses again worked closely with weather flights to provide coordinated inputs to TC-TAP, resulting in a more accurate depiction of forecast weather. OWS site forecasters provided bases with weather updates of forecasted conditions, and all remained engaged as the Carolinas and Virginia saw the brunt of Ernesto's fury with 55 to 60 knot wind gusts and five to 10 inches of rain.

The 9th OWS graphics section was also hard at work during the storm. Skilled weather technicians produced crucial aviation hazard charts used by flight weather briefers to alert aircrews to areas of hazardous turbulence and thunderstorms.
As a result of the teamwork between the OWS and the Weather Flights, assets worth more than 18 billion dollars and 48,199 people were safeguarded with no losses to life or property. Ron Smith, Chief of Weather Operations at Homestead AFB appreciated the long hours worked by 9th OWS forecasters said he was, "Quite satisfied with the entire coordination process--precise and timely weather forecasts are critical to downrange operations." No need to worry, the 9th OWS is "Always Alert!"