By Air Force Staff Sgt. Whitney Amstutz
455th Air Expeditionary Wing
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, Feb. 6, 2015 – For most of us, weather forecasts are taken lightly -- information to be considered, but easily written off with few consequences.
On an average day, the most critical information conveyed by a forecast might be whether it's advisable to carry an umbrella. But here, the counsel of weather forecasters has the power to ground airplanes.
Entrusted with the responsibility of keeping tabs on Mother Nature, airmen assigned to the 455th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron's weather flight provide up-to-the-minute recommendations to the pilots who make American airpower one of the most effective deterrents to terrorism.
Two Sides to Weather Operations
"We have an airfield side and a mission side here," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Timothy Lawson, 455 EOSS weather flight chief, deployed from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. "On the airfield side we take care of watch, warnings and advisories to ensure base resources are protected, and we issue forecasts which are used by commanders in decision-making.
"On the mission side we go and brief the fighter and helicopter pilots themselves, making sure they have good information when they're preparing for a mission," Lawson continued. "We brief them on what conditions they can expect and whether they are going to have workable airspace to accomplish objectives. We provide these briefings multiple times a day, prior to every launch."
Bagram Airfield's location provides unique trials for Lawson and fellow forecasters in the form of difficult-to-predict winds and an almost perpetual layer of haze.
"There are a lot of challenges, due to the fact that the airfield is located in a kind of geographical bowl," Lawson explained. "As the different mountain faces heat up, the winds change and go different directions at different speeds. They vary many times throughout the day going up and down the mountain slopes.
Another challenge is burning that goes on locally outside the base, as smoke and haze get trapped in the bowl, creating visibility issues. “However, based on wind flow, we can determine when the haze is going to set in, and when it will dissipate," Lawson said.
In addition to acting as the brains of the weather operation, 455 EOSS airmen also supply the brawn.
"We perform monthly maintenance on our equipment," Lawson said. "We have to make sure filters are clear of obstructions and swap them out to ensure the radar is able to get good, cool air to keep it from overheating. The radar provides us with weather signatures, so it helps us pick up on precipitation before it hits the airfield."
Weather flight members also maintain the meteorological equipment, Lawson said. "Our Ceilometer is used to assess cloud height by shooting a laser beam into the sky,” he added. “It's an extremely sensitive piece of equipment, so we pour water over it to ensure it's free of dust and debris."
Backup Plan Ensures Uninterrupted Operations
Despite the preventive measures taken to ensure equipment remains operational, the weather team has a backup plan to ensure operations are not impeded should the unexpected occur.
"We know how to take the readings manually," Lawson said. "So if the equipment was to break or fail, it would not cause a halt in the mission. We're an essential asset to the flying squadrons and we'll be here until the last plane leaves. Supporting the fighter mission and making sure they're able to provide close air support and other vital functions are probably our biggest win as weather forecasters."