By Jeff Mullin, Senior Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Oklahoma’s capricious weather is the stuff of legend.
The sage of Claremore, Will Rogers, once famously said, “If you don’t like the weather in Oklahoma, wait a minute and it’ll change.”
The men and women of the 71st Operations Support Squadron Weather Flight at Vance Air Force Base must cope with the state’s fickle conditions, as they strive to fulfill the Air Force Weather mission of delivering the highest quality tailored weather information, products and services “anytime, anywhere, from the mud to the sun.”
The 10-person Vance Weather Flight helps keep the men and women who live, work and fly at the base weather-aware.
They begin work at about 3 a.m. each weekday and set about formulating the Mission Execution Forecast for all of Vance’s pilots, said Capt. Blake Hamilton, weather flight commander, laboring in semi-darkness in order to better see their computer screens.
And they must forecast some of the most difficult weather in the world. Staff Sgt. Nicole Curran began her Air Force weather career in Germany.
“They told us if you could forecast in Europe, you could forecast anywhere,” she said. “I say that’s not true. If you can forecast in Oklahoma then you can forecast anywhere, because when I was in Europe all we really dealt with was fog. Here you have everything.”
The MEF is divided into two components. The first concerns the immediate area of the airfield within a five-mile radius of Vance, while the second covers the Military Operating Areas, vast zones where most of Vance’s flight training sorties take place. The forecasts include takeoff and landing conditions, as well as the weather along the way.
The weather flight gives Vance pilots a heads-up on any hazards they may encounter (like turbulence, icing or thunderstorms) or any kind of precipitation.
The forecasts include information on clouds, visibility, precipitation, temperature and wind speeds both aloft and on the surface.
Pilots flying specific routes, like cross country sorties or out and backs, are given similar forecasts for the areas in which they will be operating.
The MEF used to be delivered in person via Flight Weather Briefing forms, also known as Dash-Ones, Hamilton said, but pilots now can access weather information via computer.
“Twelve years ago, this entire space would be filled with student pilots,” said Tech. Sgt. John Rogers, indicating a small lobby area within the confines of the weather flight. “We would be constantly verbally briefing student pilots and giving out Dash-Ones, almost like a factory, just cranking them out constantly.
“But now, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, they can all see the MEF in their flying squadrons. Nowadays, we’ll get some phone calls, but we rarely get anybody in here.”
These days the flight, said Hamilton, does between 10 and 15 weather briefings a day out of the hundreds of daily flight operations.
“I think we’ve definitely streamlined things the last 10 or 15 years,” said Hamilton.
The best part of being a forecaster, said Curran, is getting the little things right.
“When you forecasted something little, like the ceiling lifting by 200 feet, and you get that forecast right within 30 minutes, that’s the best feeling in the world,” she said. “You got it right.”
The weather flight also reports hourly observations accessible both to the Vance tower and radar approach control personnel as well as to civilian websites.
Vance’s flying operations are dependent on the observations and forecasts of the 71st OSS Weather Flight. Each airframe at Vance — the T-6, T-38 and T-1 — has different weather constraints that can keep it from flying, said Hamilton.
“When one of those thresholds are met, they no longer do what they were planning to do,” he said.
For student pilots, the 71st OSS Weather Flight’s mission is two-fold, said Hamilton.
“Our job is to make them safe and to make their job as easy as possible,” he said.
The Vance Weather Flight employs airfield sensors, one at each end of the runways, that detect cloud heights, visibility, wind speed, wind direction, rain and freezing rain. The lightning detection system helps pinpoint thunderstorms. The flight also has hand-held equipment for use as backups in case their computer equipment goes down.
Air Force Weather has three squadrons throughout the continental United States — at Barksdale AFB, La., Scott AFB, Ill., and Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. Vance’s squadron is at Barksdale. The squadron writes the Terminal Aerodrome Forecast (TAF) for Vance and issues weather alerts in coordination with the 71 OSS Weather Flight.
If Barksdale’s forecasters are preparing to issue a severe thunderstorm warning in this area, for instance, they will first call Vance.
“We’re the eyes forward,” said Hamilton. “We’re really the area experts.”
During times of severe weather, the 71st OSS Weather Flight is fully staffed.
“During severe weather we’re in here as long as we need to be,” said Hamilton. “We’ve done it several times where we’re in here for 24 hours, a couple of days.
“We’re here just so we can provide the best knowledge for our customers.”
That population includes not only the instructor pilots and students but all military and civilian personnel who live and work at Vance.
“We’ll coordinate with the Child Development Center,” Hamilton said. “They always want to know how hot it is.”
The men and women of Vance appreciate the job the 71st OSS Weather Flight does, Hamilton said.
“I think they definitely appreciate us,” he said. “We do a really good job of supporting them, of making sure we get the best knowledge out to them. I know we get some really good feedback.”
When student pilots are preparing to graduate, they often show their appreciation by bringing their parents to show off the weather flight.
“They’ll say good things about us,” Hamilton said with a smile, “at least in person.”
Hamilton said he has wanted to be a weatherman ever since he was “a toddler.”
“My friends thought I was weird, but I was like, ‘I want to be a weatherman,’” said Hamilton, a graduate of Iowa State.
Curran grew up in the Northeast terrified of thunderstorms, but her father helped her get over that fear.
“He took me outside in his raincoat and everything, and we just sat outside,” she said. “He just showed me the absolute beauty behind mother nature. I’ve been hooked ever since.”
Senior Airman Jonathan Young, from Seminole, grew up with Oklahoma’s wild weather.
“When I first started studying weather, I didn’t realize how much more extensively Oklahoma educated children on weather,” said Young. “I knew stuff the first couple months of tech school that no one else knew.”