Northwest Military Blogs: McChord Flightline Chatter

June 17, 2011 at 3:23am

JBLM weather Airmen keep Army flying

Photo by Ingrid Barrentine Staff Sgt. Kimberley Sims, 1st Weather Squadron, monitors a TMQ-53 Automated Observing System June 8 in the parking lot of the squadron headquarters. The portable system provides current weather data for the Airmen.

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If Seattle news meteorologists forecast bad weather, the rain might ruin the afternoon by coming a few hours earlier than expected. For the Airmen of the 1st Weather Squadron at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a wrong weather update can be the difference between mission completion and failure, or life and death for Army units in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Part of the 1st Air Support Operations Group, the 1st Weather Squadron, is traditionally aligned to assist JBLM assets: I Corps, the Stryker brigades, an Army aviation unit, and eventually, the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade when it stands up, and the 201st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade. The 75-plus squadron headquarters element delivers "operationalized" weather reports to battlefield commanders so they can determine the best time to conduct full-spectrum operations, said squadron commander Lt. Col. James Mackey. Instead of just providing a report of the weather conditions for the next 24 hours, battlefield weather Airmen take a detailed look at their supported unit's future missions and create battlefield reports to the unit commander on whether that mission will be impacted by the weather and local environment.

"Our job is to find that window of opportunity to leverage our assets for advantage," Mackey said.

Finding the window of opportunity to turn a "no go" mission into a "go" is the crux of the unit's downrange mission. These Air Force staff weather officers, part of most Army brigade-level headquarters, give the battlefield commander the "so what" factor behind every weather forecast. Most Army assets, like helicopters, need good visibility to fly. If a dust storm is coming in, a battlefield weather Airman can take a look at a real-time satellite image, and through weather sensors emplaced around various locations on the battlefield, get a detailed weather forecast that is accurate to the minute.

So if an aerial medical evacuation is needed in Afghanistan, and there's a two-hour window during which the helicopter is cleared to fly, the SWO finds that piece of information and briefs it to the battlefield commander, said Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Briggs. "Many weather guys a long time ago didn't realize that we'd be at this level, down to the finite detail of a squad of Soldiers, determining whether missions would make it or not make it, depending on the weather Airman's (call)," Briggs said.

Technical Sergeant Travis Rieken can attest to how important his job can be in battle. He recently redeployed after conducting battlefield weather reports for Rangers in Afghanistan. A convoy was stuck in a flash flood in a mountainous region of the country. Bad weather delayed aviation help, until finally, the weather broke and troops were sent out to help the convoy. When the helicopters arrived, they found the stranded troops engaged with Taliban insurgents. The enemy was suppressed, and a Soldier swept away in the water was promptly recovered. The commander attributed the mission's success to Rieken's, and his battlefield weather team's, diligence in always looking to find opportunities to move out.

"It's a thankless job - if you forecast the weather right, that's your job, you are supposed to do that. But its not perfect and you do get it wrong sometimes," Rieken said. "You just hope that you catch it before a pilot gets into serious danger or someone on the ground gets into serious danger because of something you did or did not forecast."

Like the Joint Terminal Attack Controllers with the 5th Air Support Operations Squadron, these aren't your normal Airmen, let alone weather Airmen. They are trained in infantry tactics and learn the same skills as Soldiers do. They are trained in multiple personal and crew-served weapons, movement under fire, basic convoy and land navigation skills and driver's training.

The 1st Weather Squadron Airmen are so different from their non-tactical weather Airmen, that the two sides are referred to as "green" and "blue." Being on the "green side" means distributing battlefield weather forecasts and briefing to Army leaders, not Air Force.

"On the ‘blue side,' they have jets and big airplanes that can fly through just about anything," Staff Sgt. Charles Williams said. "But for ‘green' and dealing with helicopters, you have to be spot on because they don't have all the leeway (in maneuvering through different types of weather) that an airplane would have."

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