More than just forecasts, OWS team provides important intel daily

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Michael Voss
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Senior Airman Maria Atalig sits at her work-center here in Germany, monitoring multiple systems for her assigned area of responsibility thousands of miles away.

Suddenly the day heats up for the 1W0X1 Air Force Weather Forecaster assigned to the 21st Operational Weather Squadron.

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Susana Awan, aerographer's mate and floor supervisor for the day, tells Airman Atalig there is an advisory that needs to get out to a pilot flying in the area right away.

Through a vast system of coordination between Airman Atalig at Sembach and air-traffic controllers in the flight tower at Souda Bay Naval Base, Greece, they manage to contact the Ramstein pilot, an Air Force major flying a C-21 near Crete, the information he needed to successfully complete his mission.

Taking the phone, the 21-year-old weather forecaster speaks directly with the aircraft commander providing the necessary 25-knot wind advisory. She then logs the conversation and goes on with her other day-to-day duties.

"It is nerve racking the first time you realize you are talking to a pilot half way around the world on a mission, but you get used to it," said Airman Atalig.

Made up of 200 personnel from Airmen to Navy Seaman and civilians, the squadron represents a one-of-a-kind unit.

Each day, young servicemembers just like Airman Atalig are responsible for base or post forecasting, developing weather products, briefing transient aircrews and providing weather warnings for all of their geographical units.

The 21st OWS is charged with providing highly accurate, timely and relevant environmental situational awareness to the Air Force, Navy and Army Commanders operating in U.S. European Command in partnership with NATO.

"On the operational floor we are fully integrated," said 21st OWS Operations Superintendent Master Sgt. Terry Prime. "One day we could have an Airman observing and forecasting for a Navy area of responsibility, and another day it could be the exact opposite."

The services collocated in 2006, finding a way to complete their assigned missions while saving the Department of Defense money.

But that is not the only thing that's changed over the years within the weather forecasting community, according to the 16-year Air Force veteran.

"Today two and three stripers are doing the same work with more accuracy than technical sergeants did a decade ago all while operating with their Navy counterparts," he said.

Forecasters assigned to the 21st OWS use automated observing systems located at all military installations and communicate with their combat weather flights, the squadron is able to "watch" the weather in their entire area of responsibility from one central location.

"It has come with some challenges," said Naval Aviation Forecast Detachment Leading Chief Petty Officer Matthew Moeller. "We forecast for both above and below the surface of the ground; the Air Force monitors and forecasts for air and space, and the services have different thresholds for our aviators."

Although the new recruits complete a multi-service technical school at Kessler Air Force Base, Miss., they break out into different classes for service specific topics, explained the 15-year Navy forecaster from Burlington, Iowa.

The operational weather squadron is the first place a newly schooled weather apprentice will report. At the squadron, working alongside a seasoned weather professional, the forecaster is trained in all aspects of Air Force meteorology, from pilot briefing to tactical forecasting.

"It has to work this way, there is a significant responsibility placed on our young enlistees' shoulders. 'Go, no-go decisions' are made on the conditions and forecast we make," explained Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Charles Monk, 21st OWS chief enlisted manger.

To aid a 1W0X1 upon assignment at the 21st OWS, they attend an additional ten weeks of on-the-job training to learn service-specific regulations.

"We do this classroom teaching so by the time the new 1W hits the operations floor, they have already made any mistakes and they are ready to go," said 21st OWS Weather Instructor retired Senior Master Sgt. Mike Przybysz.

Although some European residents may be used to seeing weather updates by the 21st OWS on the American Forces Network, providing operational support to the warfighter is the primary concern of the squadron.

"People only notice when we are wrong," explained Sergeant Prime. "Overall, the squadron has a 95 to 98 percent accuracy when it comes to forecasting, but our main emphasis is on the warfighter."

Sergeant Prime explained, "I can't just tell an aviator it is going to be partly cloudy; we have to an provide in-depth briefing normally three hours prior to takeoff, providing ceilings, visibilities and pressures among other things."

Although providing that required data does take constant effort and communication between the members of the squadron, they have not forgotten what is at stake if they get their forecast wrong.

"Tactical decisions are made on our forecast, we are responsible for telling the pilots if they are going to be able to see their intended targets or land at points on their designated flight plan," Chief Moeller said.

Remember the next time you're waiting for the 21st OWS forecast on AFN to plan your next European vacation, they are looking out for you and those carrying on the mission both above and below Earth's surface.