By Nathan Pfau, Army Flier Staff WriterSeptember 1, 2016
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- A big factor when it comes to training and flying on Fort Rucker is the weather, and one organization on Cairns Army Airfield keeps the installation informed to help ensure the safety of its Aviators.
Fort Rucker Weather Operations provides weather updates, alerts and reports to the installation's Aviators that help them prepare their flight plans, but also provides valuable information to the post to help when planning events across the installation, according to Cindy Howell, supervisory meteorological technician.
"We do a little bit of everything here, but our main mission is Aviation weather," said Cindy Howell, supervisory meteorological technician. "We issue our product set three times a day -- covering an area approximately 32,000 square miles. The local flying area spans portions of Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Our product set includes the Mission Execution Forecast, which covers VFR flights within 60 nautical miles; a DD 175-1 that covers IFR flights within 100 nautical miles; and a DD 175-1 Continuation Sheet that covers IFR flights within 150 nautical miles."
These products are all available on the Fort Rucker Weather Operations website. Howell said providing that knowledge to pilots is crucial.
"They can't legally launch their aircraft without a weather briefing," she said. "We try to be as thorough as possible, tailoring each briefing to that particular customer. Our goal is to minimize their risk and maximize their training time."
But briefing pilots about what weather they might be flying in is only one part of daily life in weather ops.
Resource protection is another valuable part of the mission at weather ops, which issues 54 different watches, warnings and advisories throughout Fort Rucker, said Howell.
"These watches, warnings, and advisories are issued for forecast and observed hazards, such as cold temperatures, icing, turbulence, severe thunderstorms and tornadoes," she said.
Weather ops monitors the Doppler radar constantly for severe weather and also serves as the secondary tornado siren on the installation. When hurricanes threaten the post, Howell and her team spring into action, producing a tailored hurricane briefing and threat assessment every six hours.
"Our hurricane briefing is tailored specifically for Fort Rucker," she said. "It provides post leadership the information they need to make decisions on safeguarding aircraft and early release of personnel."
Howell said the Fort Rucker community has great resources available to them via the weather ops website, Facebook page, Twitter feed and mobile app, which are all accessible at www.rucker.army.mil/6weather, where people can find links to local radar and satellite feeds, planning data, tropical products, safety information and more.
"Weather is unpredictable. Be informed and be prepared," said Howell.
Although Fort Rucker Weather Operations focuses on forecasting weather, they differ from the typical weather forecaster people might see on the evening news.
"A civilian forecaster might tell you partly cloudy with a 30-percent chance of rain, but we have to be a little more precise than that," she said. "We have to tell you within 30 minutes what time will the rain start and how high will the clouds be. Depending on the customer, airframe and mission, we have to tell you the difference between a 400-foot and 500-foot cloud ceiling. To our customers, 100 feet can mean the difference between a go and a no-go.
"To produce our forecasts, we look at the overall picture, local area surface observations, satellite imagery, radar and the upper levels of the atmosphere," said the meteorological technician. "Then we take all that, along with model data, forecast data and alpha numeric guidance, and we piece it all together into the best product we can. It is really a never-ending process and it is as much art as it is science."
Weather ops also does planning forecasts for special events like Freedom Fest, Lake Fest, the children's Easter egg hunt, Children's Festival, Oktoberfest and any major event that takes place on post, she said, adding that these forecasts will be provided to the Directorate of Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation several days out to help ensure these events can go off without a hitch.
When it comes to weather forecasting on the installation, accuracy is a must, and with weather, that's often difficult to do, said Howell.
"Three days a week we put together a detailed seven-day forecast so Fort Rucker leadership can plan ahead," she said. "Sometimes the customer needs to fly on Saturday. Saturday flying is expensive. Support staff, such as instructors, air traffic controllers, base ops, refuelers and weather must be called in on overtime.
"If people get called in on overtime and our forecast is a bust, we have just cost the customer a lot of money," said Howell. "In these difficult fiscal times, people simply don't have money to throw around like that. We must get it right."