It's lightning season in the lightning capital of the world
by Nick Stubbs
Dark, boiling clouds form over Tampa Bay. Fronds 50 feet in the air atop a spindly palm begin to rustle. Workers on the flightline go about their jobs but keep glancing toward the clouds, trying to determine the direction of the looming storm. Conditions are right for lightning, the deadly force of nature more common between Tampa and Orlando than any other place on the planet.
Base weather forecasters put out a lightning watch, which is distributed base wide by the Command Post. All is quiet when the flicker of bright, white light, followed by a rumbling boom, changes everything in an instant.
Lightning detectors in the base weather observer's office pinpoint the strike and a "watch" becomes a "warning." The call goes out: "Lighting within five."
The term means a strike was recorded within five miles of the base. Aircraft may not take off or land. Everyone stops outdoor activities and seeks shelter. The status will remain until 15 minutes pass without a recorded strike within five miles.
Tech. Sgt. James Darlow, NCOIC of the Combat Weather Team knows the drill all too well.
At this time of year lightning is about as sure as the sunrise and MacDill has a front-row seat for some of Mother Nature's finest fireworks.
The danger on base during the summer months is clear, said Don Washington of the base Safety Office.
"This is the lightning capitol of the world," he said. "Because air bases are so wide open they are particularly vulnerable."
Lightning is nothing more than a static electricity charge multiplied. When moisture in the atmosphere is high, the air between the ground and clouds becomes conductive to the giant spark jumping from the atmosphere to the earth. A lightning bolt can travel as far as eight miles and reach temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun. It often strikes the tallest objects in its path on the way down but can splinter strike low-lying objects, which includes people.
Washington said MacDill has been lucky for the most part. While its had its share of electronic damage and close calls, no one he is aware of has been hit by lighting on base, although years ago there were a couple of close calls reported along the flightline.
He noted a well known case of some servicemembers huddled under a C-130 at another base about five years ago when lightning struck the plane, injuring several.
"Out there (in the open) it can be very dangerous," said Washington, who notes the reason for the watch/warning system is to give people time to head for cover before it's too late."
Certain activities are more dangerous than others, one of them being golf. With players in open areas and often holding metal clubs, the combination is a recipe for disaster. Likewise, those jogging or playing team sports in the open air should head for cover at the first signs of lightning. The base Safety Office has an informational video, which details the dangers and precautions and it is available for check out.