The quiet storm: Predicting weather in an ever-changing environment

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Emerald Ralston
  • 341st Space Wing Public Affairs Office
As many members of Team Malmstrom know, a calm, sunny 55-degree today in Great Falls can give way to a 30-degree, snowy, windy tomorrow overnight. With weather patterns ranging from hot to cold, calm to windy, dry to snowy, a special team of weather analysts can make all the difference in how we do business at Malmstrom. 

From providing accurate weather reports to ensure safety for the helicopter flying mission to providing detailed reports to commanders, the 341st Operations Support Squadron weather flight is a fundamental element for Team Malmstrom's safety and awareness. 

Some members of the six-person weather flight rise before the sun, arriving at 4 a.m. to get a jump on the day's weather reports, putting together detailed descriptions of the weather for commanders, the command post and the helicopter squadron. While other members come in at 11:45 a.m. to stay until all flying missions for the day are complete, which can last past midnight. They also push out pre-departure slides and a voice-over for weather conditions pertaining to flights and other weather-impacted missions, the fitness forecast for the 341st Services Squadron and a general forecast for Malmstrom each morning. 

"It's a lot to accomplish by 8 a.m.," said Staff Sgt. Jane Connors, 341st OSS weather flight meteorological technician. 

Being able to understand and accurately predict the weather in Montana is an integral part of planning and executing many aspects of Malmstrom's mission. 

Although the weather flight doesn't directly report weather conditions, they still contribute to whether convoy missions go on or not. 

"There are times where we have high winds, snow, blowing snow and low visibility," Sergeant Connors said. "When we report that, those things will keep people from traveling. Commanders make decisions regarding travel based on our suggestions."
One thing that is different about Malmstrom than many other bases is the lack of an operational runway. 

"Forecasting for the base proper is interesting because we don't have an active runway," said Capt. Daniel MacKeen, 341st OSS weather flight commander. "Our mission may be different, but it's still very important. We're in charge of the most powerful weapon system in the world and we still have a flying mission. Even though we don't have 'jets' we still forecast for the largest missile complex in the Air Force with the most diverse terrain in which the helos fly every day." 

While the weather flight provides weather information to the entire base, they work primarily with the 40th Helicopter Squadron to give the go or no-go on flying missions. 

"The helicopter squadron has certain criteria they can and cannot fly under," Sergeant Connors said. "When we provide them weather, if there are any warnings, watches or advisories, what we say can actually ground them for the day. So we work very closely with them because whether they fly or don't fly is very dependent on weather. It's a huge impact on the helicopter mission." 

Sergeant Connors said one of the most important things about her job is that weather plays such a huge role in safety. 

"Weather impacts life and death issues," she said. "Very near and dear to my heart are the helos. There are lives at risk and when we forecast for the helicopter squadron, there is icing, there is turbulence - every day there are issues where the roads and things on the surface may seem fine, but these guys are going out to mountains, areas where the mountains are obscured by clouds, and it's very important to get it right. If we don't get it right, there can be serious consequences." 

The weather flight relies heavily on their equipment and weather technology, along with reports from the 25th Operations Weather Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. 

"We interface with Davis-Monthan on weather analysis a lot," Sergeant Connors said. "They provide weather reports for the western half of the country, and we take it and make it local." 

Radar, lightning tracking devices and a Pilot to Metro Service that allows the weather flight to talk to pilots in flight are also heavily relied on. Radar tracks the moisture in the atmosphere and winds up to 30,000 feet; the lightning tracking device shows exactly where and when lightning can happen in real time; and talking to pilots in flight is important to keep them updated on any changes in weather. 

The PMSV also allows the weather flight to talk to any aircraft flying overhead. In the event an aircraft is on its way to Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., the pilot could request weather information for that base via Malmstrom's weather flight. 

Another piece of equipment located on the flightline is the Automated Surface Observation Site, which includes ceilometers - a laser that shoots up a laser through the atmosphere and measures cloud coverage up to 14,000 feet - along with visibility, dew point, temperature, altimeter, assorted pressures, wind, density altitude, pressure altitude, and precipitation type and amounts. 

"We take all the information from all the equipment and put our knowledge and logic into it - the human factor - and come up with a detailed, accurate product," Captain MacKeen said. 

Fortunately, the weather flight is good at what they do and quality of the forecast is almost never an issue, Captain MacKeen said. 

"I really have a passion for the science, so I try really hard to get it right," Sergeant Connors said. "When you get it right, it feels like hitting a home run. I've never hit a home run in baseball but when you get it right in weather, to me, that's what it must feel like. It's a great feeling to do something you love doing and do it well, especially when the brave men and women who fly the helos say it was a great forecast."