Predicting desert weather is not always easy

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Steve Elliott
  • 332nd Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs
People may think there is not much to observing and forecasting the weather in a desert environment like in Southwest Asia. "Hot!" should cover all the bases.

Not hardly, say the weather warriors assigned to the shop tucked away in a small corner of the command post building here.

"Although it might not seem like it now, there are seasonal changes in Kuwait and this part of the world," said Tech. Sgt. Michael D. Compton, a forecaster deployed here from Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England. "During the winter months, there are rain and thunderstorms that can even lead to flooding here at Jaber. In the summer, it's the sandstorms that can be destructive."

Blowing sand and dust can get as high as 20,000 feet into the atmosphere, which can make flying pretty dicey. Sandstorms look like big, brown snowstorms to the pilots, and are just as hard to fly through or around.

The weather shop, with the help of the 28th Operational Weather Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., help provide information for 332nd Air Expeditionary Group pilots to safely and effectively take off, accomplish their mission, and return to base. They also provide information to the agencies on base in charge of resource protection, in case there is a severe weather system on its way.

"We're responsible for giving the wing leadership information about heat stress, so they can inform the base population about keeping good hydration, or instituting work-rest cycles when the heat becomes severe," Compton said.

The 28th OWS at Shaw is kind of a "one-stop shopping" weather information hub for U.S. Central Command, with a wide variety of information available, such as real-time observations and forecasts, and climatology studies of this area. It is one of seven such squadrons at places like Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, Alaska, Korea and Germany. Their mission includes providing operational level weather products and information for Air Force, Army, Guard, and Reserve units in the Southeastern United States, plus deployed forces stretching from Southwest Asia to Northeast Africa.

"This shop is the main weather station for Kuwait and much of the (area of responsibility)," said Master Sgt. Wendell Foreman, the flight chief deployed here from Randolph AFB, Texas. "There are smaller shops at other SWA bases, and between all of us, we cover a wide area of the no-fly zone in the AOR."

"We also provide information in case an aircraft has to divert because of an emergency," said Senior Airman Donica L. Betts, a forecaster deployed here from Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. "We have to brief the pilots about conditions at other SWA bases, just in case there's a problem with their aircraft or a weather-divert."

With the variety of aircraft here, there are different things the pilots need to know. A helicopter has a different tolerance than a fighter, which is different from a transport. Each aircraft has different visibility restrictions and wind tolerances which must be taken into account for each mission.

The weather flight operates around the clock, with four forecasters rotating shifts to provide weather information whenever it is needed. All are dual-qualified as weather observers and forecasters, as opposed to years past where there would be two separate people for each job.

"The schoolhouse at Keesler AFB, Miss., now turns out weather people trained to do both jobs, which makes sense," Foreman said.

"It's a long, difficult school and it's very fast-paced," Betts said. She said forecasters continue their education with career development courses.

Weather technology has grown exponentially in a very short time, even in the five years she has been in the career field, Betts said.

"It's gone from tactical weather observation to more and more computer and Internet-based technology, such as the Joint Air Force and Army Weather Information Network, and other products from the Air Force Weather Agency," Betts said.

"The mindset in weather now is that the atmosphere is a fluid thing, in both the horizontal and vertical planes," Compton said. "The software we have now in weather can give the pilot a three-dimensional view of how high cloud tops are, and how and when weather systems are moving. We can show them how it will affect them when they take off, on their way to their target, at the target site, and on the way back to home base."

While weather people like Betts are coming in at the cutting edge of weather technology, the ever-changing face of weather tools can be a challenge for those in the career field for a longer period of time, like Foreman's 17 years and Compton's 16-plus years.

"The dynamics of this career field have changed so much since I first came in," Foreman said. "A lot of (regulations) and the ways we do business have changed, but that's also one of the enjoyable things as well ... the fact that this is an always evolving science."

The weather team's efforts are greatly appreciated by their customers, the pilots.

"This is a combat weather team," Foreman said. "The pilots can know what to expect to see from our information. We help train the pilots on the unique characteristics of weather in the AOR, and they go away better informed and with a better basic understanding of weather."

Even the other military services have sat up and taken notice of the excellent support the Jaber weather shop supplies.

"I've had the F-18 Marine pilots tell us that they get better weather support here than at home station," Compton said. "It's all part of getting the weather to the warfighter."