SOUTHWEST ASIA — It's a tough job trying to predict Mother Nature and when it comes to weather, everyone's a critic. Thinking the day holds nothing but sun and your picnic gets rained out can be aggravating. Now try to tell a pilot he can't fly because the weather patterns shifted. This dilemma is something deployed weather forecasters face every day.
"When we're talking visibility, you kind of have to be as accurate as you possibly can," said Senior Airman David Baily, a 386th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron weather forecaster. "They have limitations on whether they can safely get into an airfield or not. We really try to stay on top of it and kick out the weather observations to keep aircrew updated."
Deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, members of the 386th EOSS weather team do what they can to keep the aircraft flying. Every hour they step outside to collect weather data through observation. Their equipment collects air speed, pressure and gives them the chance to visually inspect the atmosphere surrounding the flightline. In a sparse region, like Southwest Asia, observation data is gold to a forecaster. With the limited points of terrain around, these forecasters also rely on host nation partnerships to help gather as much information as possible.
The more data they receive, the more accurate their forecasts are. The more accurate their forecasts are the greater chance a flying mission receives the green light. It's a relationship pilots come to trust and rely on.
"In the Air Force, having an accurate forecast can determine the success or failure of a mission," said Capt. Benjamin De La Cruz, the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing flight safety officer in charge. "In the C-130 (Hercules) community, it not only plays a major part in the beginning stages in mission planning, but also during airdrops, tactical missions and max effort landings. It is also the leading cause of many aviation mishaps or is a contributing factor."
Changing weather isn't the only challenge these Airmen face. Forecasters trust in experience, but deployments usually last only six months. At their home station they have years to learn the ins and outs of a region. When the winds change, forecasters can look back over their time and realize these changing winds signal a storm and plan accordingly. To mitigate this in a deployed environment, forecasters learn to trust their observations and higher headquarters.
"The biggest thing in weather is experience," said Staff Sgt. Gregory Everson, a 386th EOSS weather forecaster. "We are overseen by 28th Operational Weather Squadron at Shaw (Air Force Base, South Carolina), and they rely on us and we rely on them. They have the subject matter experts and the continuity and we can reach back if we need to."
Despite the challenges faced, these forecasters feel what they are providing to the base, and the pilots, are helping the Air Force play a vital role in Operation Inherent Resolve.
"Depending on what the weather is, it could change an entire base's day. There's a lot of pressure but the people we work with trust us to do our job and do it correctly," Bailey said.