Eyes of the storm

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Torey Griffith
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
The line of low, dark clouds along the western horizon transformed what had been a still, humid, summer day into torrents of rain, small hail and damaging winds.

The forecasters at the 509th Operations Support Squadron Weather Operations Center here had anticipated the action.

As the local atmosphere deteriorated, and a stream of cold air moved over south central Kansas, forecasters watched the line of convective storms blow up and begin their northeast track toward Whiteman Air Force Base, issuing advisories to departing pilots, and cautioning air traffic controllers and senior leadership.

"Sometimes, as 'weather guys,' we are put into a unique predicament," said Master Sgt. Nolan Hildebrand, the 509th Weather Flight's NCO in charge of mission services. "We pride ourselves in the accuracy of our forecasts. If we warn the base of potential tornadoes or thunderstorms, because the parameters are there, we'd like to be right, but we never want to see harm come to the base, community or assets."

There are many missions at Whiteman AFB that depend on the accuracy of a forecaster's work.

"As a weather flight, we provide weather support for all of the wings associated with the base: three flying wings and one Army Aviation battalion," said Capt. Glen DeMars, the weather flight commander. "We're a part of everything. There's nothing that any of the wings on base do, operationally, without us. Weather changes all the time, and that makes our job essential."

Before the nation's multi-million-dollar assets soar into the atmosphere, forecasters provide several days worth of information.

The Joint Environment Toolkit, a system Air Force Weather officials use to monitor weather conditions at hundreds of Air Force bases and Army installations worldwide, arms weather technicians with information needed to provide pilots departure, en route and arrival environmental conditions at bases around the globe.

"We provide a five-day forecast for the general and his staff for planning purposes," Captain DeMars said, "and that funnels down to day-prior planning, where pilots will call us to get information for missions they're flying the next day. We're also there for pre-flight briefings, which occur shortly before crews step to their aircraft."

Since there are many factors that go into launching a B-2 Spirit, given the unlimited range of the aircraft, and its wartime mission, officials said the weather center's accuracy is key to its success.

"Air Force Weather is different from the civilian agencies, such as the National Weather Service," Sergeant Hildebrand said. "We don't deal in probabilities. We make forecasts, and we are very specific when it comes to missions."

On top of day-to-day tasks, when the weather turns nasty, the workload increases.

The center has a notification chain that distributes inclement weather information to everyone assigned to the base that might be affected, said Captain DeMars.

However, a rash of phone inquiries tends to slow them down, he said.

"We are here to answer all questions, as a support facility, but when severe weather is coming, the weather station is extremely busy," Captain DeMars said.

If the forecasts are inaccurate, there is more at stake than a ruined picnic.

"We have to be able to tell the pilots when weather events will happen, where they'll happen, and to what degree," Sergeant Hildebrand said. "We don't have the luxury of saying 'it's going to be partly cloudy today, with a 30 percent chance of rain.' That doesn't work for our mission."