Science and Technology News

Friday, February 24, 2012

Volk Field weather forecaster key part of mission success in Afghanistan

By Staff Sgt. Heather Skinkle
451st Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Mission ready? Not if the weather forecasters said it's a no-go.

An often-overlooked Air Force occupation specialty is the weather forecaster. Who hasn't anguished over a weather forecast gone wrong or at an umbrella left in a stand because the forecaster predicted sunshine?

"Mother Nature is unpredictable sometimes," said Staff Sgt. Joshua Thorn, a 451st Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron weather observer, deployed from the Wisconsin Air National Guard's Volk Field Combat Readiness Training Center.

Weather forecasting might be an imperfect science, but instead of hand-held pressure gauges that resembled Grandpa's box camera, mankind has progressed to satellites and computer systems to more accurately calculate weather trends.

"We use a combination of weather machines and balloons, satellites, modeled data, and physical observations to collect data and issue a forecast," Thorn said.

Modeled data is compiled from pre-existing weather forecasts and averages and funneled into a set of algorithms or a mathematical construct, to predict weather over a three-, five-, or even seven-day range, whereas SkewT - a website that depicts satellite data with real-time telemetry - is much more precise, Thorn said.

However, both are necessary for a complete picture of Kandahar Airfield, and on a larger scale, Afghanistan. With such a far-reaching capability, weather forecasting is an integral key to a flight's mission success. After all, deciding to fly a multi-million dollar airplane involves more than a weather-watcher looking out a window.

"We've positioned several weather stations around the airfield," Thorn said. "They have many attachments to gauge different things like temperature, dew point, wind, cloud height, and precipitation to give us a vertical atmospheric profile."

Assessing Kandahar Airfield's weather involves many pieces of equipment and a full-time staff. The KAF weather team - comprised of Air Force and NATO personnel - maintains a 24-hour operations tempo to run three weather sections at the base operations center as well as support another shift on the other side of the flight line.

Weather forecasts aren't just crucial to the pilots, though.

"Engineers ask us about precipitation amounts, say for a 5-10 year period," Thorn said. "Weather affects how they would go about building something here."

Whether it is a pilot, engineer, or Airman deciding on whether or not to don a jacket, the weather forecast affects everyone.

"The best part of my job is seeing how our mission briefs have an impact on operations," Thorn said.

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