By Nathan Pfau, Army Flier Staff WriterAugust 24, 2017
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- For Army Aviation, weather can mean the difference between life and death, and that's why one organization keeps its eyes on the sky to keep Fort Rucker Aviators safe.
Fort Rucker Weather Operations, located on Cairns Army Airfield, is not only where Aviators stop by for weather updates before they take flight, where air traffic controllers call for weather updates during those flights, and the owners of the social media outlets that pilots check for weather updates after they depart home station, but it is also the originating place for weather reports used in planning post events ranging from change of command ceremonies to Freedom Fest, as well as the office that issues weather watches, warnings and advisories to keep the Fort Rucker community safe, according to Cindy Howell, supervisory meteorological technician.
"We do a little bit of everything here, but our main mission is Aviation weather," she said. "We issue our product set three times a day -- covering an area approximately 70,700 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, she added.
Knowing the weather forecast is crucial to pilots, according to Howell. "They can't legally launch their aircraft without a weather briefing. 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."
One thing that's relatively new at Fort Rucker Weather Ops is that they are now integrated into the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence schoolhouse.
"Every class receives a briefing that details the products and services offered by weather ops, as well as outlining the overarching organization and services provided by Air Force Weather, in general," said Howell. "A lot of people don't realize that the Air Force provides weather support to the Army, both in garrison and deployed. Knowing what to expect from Air Force Weather is a great benefit to the students, now and in the future."
Briefing pilots about what weather they might be flying in is only one part of daily life in weather ops.
"Resource protection is a very important part of our mission," said the meteorological technician. "We issue 54 different watches, warnings and advisories for the Fort Rucker complex. These watches, warnings and advisories are issued for forecast and observed hazards, such as cold temperatures, icing, turbulence, lightning, severe thunderstorms and tornadoes."
Weather ops monitors the Doppler radar constantly for severe weather and serves as the secondary tornado siren on post. When hurricanes threaten the area, Howell and her team spring into action, producing a tailored hurricane briefing and threat assessment every six hours. The briefing update is available on their website under the Hurricane Central section and is tailored specifically for Fort Rucker, providing post leadership the information it needs to make decisions on safeguarding aircraft and 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. They are all accessible through links from rucker.army.mil/6weather.
"You can also find links to local radar and satellite, planning data, tropical products, safety information, and anything else you can imagine," she said. "Weather is unpredictable. Be informed and be prepared."
While there are many sources for weather information in the Wiregrass, Howell stresses that weather ops is focused on protecting the Fort Rucker complex.
"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."
The weather is constantly changing, often requiring updates or amendments to forecasts and the weather ops picture of what is happening.
"It is really a never-ending process," said Howell. "It is as much art as it is science. If you are not careful, you can suffer from data overload. There are so many data sources out there, and it is easy to become overwhelmed."
To produce the forecasts, they look at the overall picture, local area surface observations, satellite imagery, radar and the upper levels of the atmosphere. All of that data is then comprised to be pieced together in the pest product they can offer.
"It is complicated, but it is so much fun," she said. "Patience, time-management and people skills are important in this job," adding that there is no overstating the importance of accuracy in the products produced by weather ops.
"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."
Weather ops stays in constant communication with various towers and pilots that help feed information from their respective locations and because weather is constantly changing, they are constantly monitoring those changes, she said.
"Social media is one of the quickest, easiest ways for customers to know if the forecast has been updated or amended," said the meteorological technician. "We post all changes to the forecast, as well as all watches, warnings and advisories to Facebook, Twitter, and our mobile app."
With the great lengths weather ops takes to disseminate weather information and with today's advances in technology, there is no excuse to be uninformed, she said.