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Base weather forecasters - Partly understood with a slight chance of being appreciated

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

If the weatherman says there is a 50 percent chance of rain and he's right 90 percent of the time, what are the odds it will rain?

Predicting the weather is a tough job, right up there with field goal kickers and exit pollsters, filled with the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Even when they get it right, it can be thankless, says Master Sgt. James Papia, 6th Operations Support Squadron weather flight superintendent.

"If we forecast good weather and it is good, no one notices," he said. "When we forecast bad weather and we get it right, we get blamed for not stopping it."

Papia and Capt. Glenn Kerr, the weather flight commander overseeing the Combat Weather Team, are used to being the proverbial fired-upon messengers. But the rewards of the job are many, they agreed, and they know many people depend on their service and its critical nature in helping MacDill fulfill its mission.

The primary function of the team is to support fliers from MacDill here and overseas, said Kerr. If pilots and aircraft are deployed, it is the job of the team to send someone along with them to support them with detailed weather forecasting and advice. More often than not, that role involves producing weather-forecasting "packages" to support air refueling or airlift operations for the 91st Air Refueling Squadron or the 310th Airlift Squadron, said Kerr. Refueling in the air is critical work, and knowing the weather is essential to the decision of whether it is a good idea to attempt getting the tank topped off at 20,000 feet, said Kerr.

The weather team also fills the role of forecasting for all flights from base overseas, be it Army Gen. Tommy Franks, U.S. Central Command commander, heading over to the Middle East, or Maj. Gen. (Sel.) Wayne Hodges flying to Washington.

The team's predictions are used for all other flights in and out of MacDill and to update Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. which is responsible for forecasting in all of the Southeast.

The job is a lot easier with the modern equipment that has become available to forecasters over the past 30 years, said Papia. The science remains a long way from being exact, he said, despite the advancements.

"It's (forecasting) getting better, but we don't know all the dynamics yet," he said. "It's like medicine, in that we know the basic causes and effects, but there are so many variables."

Kerr is quick to point out Air Force forecasting has to be a lot more detailed than the garden variety forecasts on the nightly news or radio. Cloud ceilings, freezing altitude and visibility are not critical to the average person trying to decide whether to take an umbrella to work, but are essential to an air crew trying to connect a refueling boom to an F-16 in flight. In times of war, military weather forecasts can make the difference between success and catastrophic loss of life. The Normandy invasion is a good example, with weather one of the major considerations of when to start the landing.

Kerr said his office does not make the decisions about whether a given operation should be carried out, just advises on whether conditions are favorable for the attempt. The urgency and importance of the mission must be weighed against risks, and every situation is different, he said.

Kerr added the greatest reward in his job is being able to map out a complete flight package from take off here at MacDill to refueling along the way and perhaps landing in a foreign land, with the aircrew depending on the forecast every step of the route.

Providing critical information during the worst of times is what gives forecasters a sense of purpose, said Kerr. He hesitated to sound enthusiastic about the prospects of bad weather but, performing their duty in the face of a hurricane or other weather disaster, is why the 14 members of the team train so hard.

"I don't want to sound like we look forward to bad weather, but that is when we hope to be at our best," said Kerr.

 

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