|15th Operational Weather Squadron - Bringing Weather into Focus|
by Tech. Sgt. Sabrina Foster
375th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
3/2/2007 - Scott AFB, Ill. -- The 15th Operational Weather Squadron has the daunting responsibility of providing timely and accurate environmental situational awareness to more than 120 military installations and sites across a 22-state region of the northeastern United States. Additionally, the Squadron is one of six training hubs following the initial weather training for Airmen and officers. To meet these needs and requirements, the men and women of the 15th OWS must be experts in all facets of the Air Force weather process.
Communicating the weather
The weather forecast can be of concern for a lot of people. Whether it's planning an outdoor activity or just ensuring they are dressed properly for the day.
However, many people may not be aware of what goes on behind the scenes to ensure the weather is properly forecasted. Enter the 15th OWS's communications department, known as WXTC.
"The 15th OWS is responsible for weather support at all Army and Air Force installations in the Northeast Region of the United States, which includes Scott Air Force Base," said Capt. Scott Lisko, 15th OWS chief of training and systems. "We provide weather charts, watches, warnings and advisories for 139 locations in our area of responsibility.
"WXTC maintains several different systems to ensure our weather products are created and transmitted properly. We are responsible for 41 servers and 131 workstations valued at approximately $15 million dollars," said Captain Lisko.
"The main objective of the communications department is to manage weather systems so forecasters have the tools to do their job," said Norman Watts, director of WXTC.
The main weather system used by the 15th OWS, the Leading Environmental Analysis and Display System, is used to create weather maps and hazard charts.
Forecasters use these charts to create forecasts, watches, warnings and advisories, which are transmitted by the Integrated Weather Warning Capability System.
WXTC is on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to ensure that these systems are 100 percent operational, and are called in after hours an average of two to three times per week for computer related problems, said Mr. Watts.
A typical day in the 15th OWS communications department can vary, but some processes are done on a daily basis.
"The first thing we check (when we come in) is the status from the satellite feeds," said Mr. Watts. "Their status will tell us where the data problems are, if any. We also check with the operations manager to find out any problems that have occurred overnight."
After these checks are complete, the rest of the days are spent on routine maintenance and dealing with problems as they occur.
WXTC members check trouble tickets, and depending on the problem the user is having, they are sometimes able to fix the problem on the spot, said Mr. Watts.
WXTC is not only responsible for ensuring the forecasters have all the tools to do their job, but they also ensure all computers in the weather squadron are operational and compatible with current operating systems.
"We are constantly coordinating with the 375th Communications Squadron and the network operations security center about any patches and upgrades that we need to implement on the computers here," said Mr. Watts.
Another important function of WXTC is the acquisition and testing of new technology, such as the ClearCube blade workstations the squadron recently obtained. These systems consist of computer processors that sit in the squadron's server room racks. A small communications box is present at the desk, which provides a connection from the processor to the monitor, keyboard and mouse. The centralization of the processors in the server room offers both hardware and software benefits.
WXTC personnel can easily manage and repair all the squadron's workstations from one location, while the operations floor benefits from increased workspace and decreased noise and heat generation by removing the processors from the operations area.
Even though the WXTC is tucked away in two small rooms in Building 1521, the communications team is the backbone of the 15th OWS, working behind the scenes to ensure the forecasters have the tools they need to provide the base community and the Northeastern United States all pertinent information about the weather.
Before someone new to the weather career field is ready to forecast properly, they go through an extensive training course.
Training for the weather
"The 15th Operational Weather Squadron has two main mission areas - forecasting and training," said Capt. Scott Lisko, 15th OWS chief of training and systems. "Here at the 15th OWS, we receive about 20 percent of all Air Force weather accessions, and we're responsible for teaching them how to forecast for the Northeast United States."
After basic training, Airmen in the weather career field attend the Weather Forecaster Apprentice course at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. This eight-month course teaches the fundamentals of weather forecasting. After the trainees complete their time at Keesler, they move on to their next assignment at one of several weather "hubs" worldwide. The 15th OWS is one of these hubs.
Once the Airmen arrive at Scott, more training awaits. The fundamental course that every forecaster in the weather squadron goes through is called the Sub Region Forecaster course.
"The SRF class teaches the students how to take what they have learned in the Forecaster Apprentice course at Keesler and apply it to forecasting the weather for our specific area of responsibility," said Captain Lisko.
The SRF course lasts 4 months and can hold a maximum of 10 students. The current course has eight students enrolled.
"The training here is geared towards analysis procedures, radar and satellite training and 30 days in live laboratory training," said Larry McCoy, 15th OWS weather systems trainer.
The retired Master Sergeant enjoys his job and has been teaching for a total of 12 years, two of those at Scott.
"The most enjoyment I get from my job is when I actually see the light bulb come on after I have explained a concept to a student," said Mr. McCoy.
Weather is one of the most mentally challenging career fields in the Air Force, and the SRF course can pose difficult problems for the students to grasp. The hardest part of the course for students is probably being able to see things in three dimensions, said Mr. McCoy.
"The students must be able to look at something at one level and relate to how it would look in another part of the atmosphere," he said.
A typical work day for SRF students lasts about 9 hours, and their daily activities depend on the phase of instruction they are in. For the first three months of the course, the days consist mainly of classroom instruction. During the last month of the class, the students move to a "live lab" environment, where they practice forecasting for bases in the 15th OWS area of responsibility based on real-world weather conditions.
Airman 1st Class Eric Poynter, SRF student, is excited to be in the weather training course.
"I enjoy knowing what's going on in the atmosphere and understanding all of the processes associated with forecasting the weather," he said.
However, the Vanceburg, Ky., native's least favorite part of the training course is learning about severe weather, such as hail and high winds. Airman Poynter said the complexity of the forecasting guidelines for severe weather can make these forecasts difficult to understand.
Second Lt. Paul Hayes, SRF student, said he chose weather as a career because of his love for the sky. "My favorite part of the course is everything that goes into forecast preparation," said Lieutenant Hayes. "The skills we are learning here will be used in the real world to help us do our job."
The Gaithersburg, Md., native expects to gain operational knowledge about forecasting weather for the Air Force once he finishes the SRF class.
"Forecasting for the military is different than forecasting in the civilian world, so I hope the knowledge I gain here will help me better understand the way we forecast in the Air Force," said Lieutenant Hayes.
The current class will graduate the first week of November. Upon graduation, the students will move to the operations floor, where their newly learned skills will be put to use, issuing forecasts for the 13 bases the 15th OWS is responsible for in the Northeastern United States.
Forecasting the weather
Forecasting the weather can be a daunting job, especially when forecasting the weather for the entire Northeast Region of the United States, which encompasses 12 active-duty bases and 190 Department of Defense units on more that 100 installations across 22 states. On the one hand, there could be a hurricane moving up the East coast bringing flooding and damaging winds to Dover and Andrews AFB's. At the same time, there could be blizzard conditions at Ellsworth and Minot AFB's. Forecasters at the 15th OWS must be trained and prepared to accurately predict all of these conditions.
Weather forecasting is a small portion of responsibilities for the weather forecasters at the 15th Operational Weather Squadron. Weather is the first step in the operational risk management process used to determine if a particular mission flies that day.
"In addition to forecasting watches, warnings and advisories, we are responsible for providing aircrew briefings as well," said Capt. Hugh Freestrom, 15th OWS Alpha Flight commander. "We conduct between 70-80 aircrew briefings a day," he said. These briefings are for flights originating anywhere in the 15th OWS area of responsibility.
The operations floor is a 24-hour, 7 day-a-week operation and is divided into 4 cells: Western, Eastern, watch/warning, and aircrew briefing. You'll find about 20 Airmen manning the operations floor at any given time. A typical day for a forecaster will vary depending on the weather situation that day.
Each day begins with a shift-change briefing at 0630. This briefing consists of a broad overview of everything that's going on weather-wise in the area of responsibility. This briefing focuses on the current and forecasted weather for the next two days and provides a focus for the weather challenge of the day. After the overview briefing, each person receives a specific shift-change briefing from the person they are replacing. Each forecaster is responsible for two bases within the area of responsibility. The rest of the shift is spent analyzing charts, interpreting weather models and satellite data to stay on top of current and forecasted weather conditions.
First Lt. Daniel MacKeen, 15th OWS Lead Forecaster, analyzes all synoptic data for the continental U.S. This includes surface and upper air and model data. The Lead Forecaster is crucial as this individual the weather model used to produce the day's forecast.
"Surface data comes in hourly and upper air data comes in twice daily, said Lieutenant MacKeen. "This data is transmitted from 100's of observing sites and around 100 weather balloons locations across the U.S. and Canada," he said. The forecasters then use this data to zoom in on their area of responsibility.
The Lead Forecaster has the responsibility of making sure weather threats are correctly evaluated and is able to shift manpower from benign weather mission area to assist someone with a tough weather challenge. This ensures the 15th provides the best possible support to the warfighter.
Staff Sgt. Michael Theos, 15th OWS forecaster, works in the Northeast Continental United States Warning Cell. The NWC is responsible for resource protection to more than 190 units, many of these Air Force and Army reserve units that don't have their own local weather team.
"We cover more than 57 Department of Defense installations and issue eight different warnings - freezing precipitation, heavy snow, heavy rain, general/moderate/severe thunderstorms, winds greater than 35-knots, and winds greater than 50-knots," said Sergeant Theos.
The Newark, Ohio, native enjoys weather forecasting and because of his advanced weather training, he knows firsthand what the days weather will bring.
"I always know what to expect or how to plan for the weather in advance, and I always know what the weather is like back home in Ohio since it's in our area of responsibility," he said.
Although Sergeant Theos enjoys his job, there is one thing he wishes he could change - the schedule.
"We work shift work here, so we work all holidays and weekends. We also change shifts every month," he added.
"Even though it seems like a lot to get used to, I have adjusted to the shift work, so it's not too bad," he said.
Forecasting the weather plays a vital role in overall mission success whether it's on the ground or in the air. The forecasters in the 15th OWS are working around the clock to ensure the weather is accurately forecasted to ensure mission readiness for their area of responsibility.
"We're providing the best possible forecast for our pilots so they can get the mission done," said Lieutenant MacKeen.
Operational Risk Management and weather
The old saying "you can't fly without supply" has been around for years and definitely holds some truth, but if the "weather is not right, there will be no flying tonight."
Weather is the first step in the operational risk management process used to determine if a particular mission flies that day.
The forecasters in the aircrew briefing cell at the 15th Operational Weather Squadron are responsible for briefing aircrews in the Northeast Region of the United States, which encompasses 151 flying units across a 22-state area of responsibility.
"The aircrew briefing cell is a 24-hour operation and can have up to 12 people assigned per day, said Master Sgt. Myron Winters, 15th OWS NCOIC of the aircrew briefing cell. We conduct about 2,200 briefings per month," he said.
The briefings are put on a DD Form 175-1 and faxed or e-mailed to units with all applicable facts pertinent to the weather.
"The briefing covers take-off weather, en-route weather and the landing destination's weather, said Master Sgt. Larry Groff, 15th OWS superintendent. It basically covers everything about the weather that the pilots need to be aware of before taking off on a mission," he said.
Just recently the 15th OWS implemented a weather briefing management tool, keeping in line with the AFSO21 initiatives to streamline Air Force processes.
"The weather briefing tool provides operational risk management to increase flight safety," said Sergeant Groff.
The tool also shows all missions in the air and the status of them via a color coding system - green, yellow or red. If the status is coded green, the weather is good and the mission can continue as planned. If it is coded yellow, there are some concerns associated with the weather, which could range from winds to moderate thunderstorms. A red-coded mission is high risk and stands a good chance of a weather divert, said Sergeant Winters.
A typical day in the aircrew briefing cell varies depending on the number of flying missions for each day, which begins at about 4 a.m. with a situational awareness briefing. After the briefing, the lead briefer distributes the day's missions within the cell. The rest of the shift is spent preparing and e-mailing or faxing DD Form's 175-1 to unit's flying that day.
There is a lot of extensive training that weather Airmen have to go through to reach the high level of responsibility required to do this job. Sometimes it can be frustrating when things don't work out according to plan.
"When the weather does not turn out the way you forecast, it can be hard to accept not always being right, said Senior Airman Justin Conte, 15th OWS weather forecaster. Weather is not an exact science and sometimes there will be days when the forecast does not turn out exactly like you thought it would. I just learn from my mistakes and move forward," he said.
The Melbourne, Fla. native is still in upgrade training but already knows the importance of his job.
"We provide the aircrews a heads-up plan as to what the weather will be like for that particular day. They will know of any hazards that may have to be avoided and are able to make any changes to the mission based on the weather briefing," said Airman Conte.
The responsibility level for Airman to Senior Airman in the aircrew briefing cell is very high. They are sometimes referred to as "domino pushers", said Sergeant Groff.
"When a briefing is sent to a unit, it can set off a domino effect. The information that they send out may cause the unit to continue with the mission as planned, change routes or cancel the mission," he said.
The Airmen don't always see the fruits of their labor, said Sergeant Groff. If the weather is nice and clear, everybody is happy.
"I am very proud of the work that they do out there. I have the utmost trust and confidence in each of them to do their part to keep the missions flying," he added.