CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE SPEICHER, Iraq - Imagine a blinding, gusting wall of sand and dust five to eight thousand feet high, spanning 60 to 90 miles, moving at a rate of 35 to 60 kilometers an hour.
That describes a "haboob," an Arabic word for a type of intense sandstorm common to Iraq that can have a devastating impact on aviation operations.
Now imagine a pilot's relief in receiving a tactical instant message from a staff weather officer (SWO) miles away that advises of an approaching haboob in time to avoid it.
That is what is referred to as "operationalizing" weather -- mitigating the impact of weather on Army aviation operations by forecasting and interpreting weather systems and data in real time - and that is what Task Force Wings' staff weather team does 24/7 from Contingency Operating Base Speicher, near Tikrit, Iraq.
According to Capt. Erica Haas, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, SWO, 22nd Expeditionary Weather Squadron (EWXS) supporting TF Wings, her core team of six Airmen conduct 'round-the-clock' operations in order to do more than simply forecast weather.
"While our job includes forecasting weather, we don't simply provide data," explained Capt. Haas, a native of Wheaton, Ill. "We take data and transform it into useable information so that the Brigade Commander can accomplish his mission. In fact, being integrated into tactical aviation operations is really where we add the most value to the task force," she continued.
"We know how weather affects operations. As a result, we are able to assist those who make operational decisions mitigate those effects. We reduce the frequency that pilots fly into dangerous weather conditions. In that sense, we provide an awareness that enables missions to be conducted more safely and effectively."
The weather team accomplishes their mission by relying on field observations, and by using computer generated models and satellite images. In addition, they employ a variety of tactical equipment to include Blue Force Tracker and a Tactical Meteorological Observing System (also known as a TMQ-53). The TMQ-53 is used to obtain pressure, wind speed and direction, temperature, dew point, relative humidity, precipitation, surface visibility, cloud height and lightning detection. Captain Haas' weather team also conducts Forward Area Limited Observer Program (FALOP) training.
FALOP training uses Airmen to teach Soldiers how to perform weather observations and relay pertinent data to the SWO from strategic locations in northern Iraq. According to Capt. Haas, having qualified weather observers in strategic locations is paramount as U.S. forces drawdown and reduce their numbers throughout Iraq.
Major Jeffrey Poquette is one of two Task Force Wings' Chief of Operations in charge of synchronizing the day-to-day efforts of the brigade-level tactical operations, to include, but not limited to, intelligence, lethal and non-lethal fire support and effects, and all manned and unmanned brigade flight operations. He provides situational awareness for the Brigade Commander for all aviation assets in USD-North. As a 10-year veteran on his second combat deployment in support of the global war on terrorism and UH-60 Black Hawk pilot, Maj. Poquette knows first-hand the value that the SWO team adds to aviation operations.
"Weather is one of our biggest threats, the thing that can place us in dangerous situations," explained Maj. Poquette, a native of Long Island, New York. "For that reason, the weather team's presence in our tactical operations center is absolutely invaluable.
"What they do may be best described in a catch phrase we use called, 'operationalizing' weather. What that means is the [weather] team knows and understands our various aviation missions, and they are able to evaluate the weather in conjunction with those missions and tell us where the impacts are. They are far more than mere providers of raw weather data.
"In addition, they provide their analysis to us and to our pilots in 'real-time.' I can tell you as an aviator that having real-time access to weather information removes the concern that our pilots and air crews are receiving inaccurate or incomplete weather information which can put them in dangerous situations."
According to Maj. Poquette, TF Wings' weather team is the best he has ever worked with. For Capt. Haas, her team's success is due to the high quality of her non-commissioned officers and junior Airmen.
Two of those Airmen are Master Sergeant Paul Rogers, weather forecaster and staff weather team non-commissioned officer-in-charge, 22nd EWXS, and Senior Airman Cassandra Napolitano-Romero, weather forecaster, 22nd EWXS. Both take pride in the value that they add to Army aviation operations.
Master Sgt. Rogers, a native of Belleville, Ill., is a 20-year veteran on his third combat deployment, all in support of the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade. He recalled how weather first intrigued him as a young Airman.
"Early in my career, an officer showed me a clear picture of the sky and explained to me that while there appears to be nothing happening, a dynamic existed beyond what I could see that was always changing the atmosphere. The 'unseen' and having tools that can predict with a good degree of accuracy changes in the atmosphere instilled in me the desire to be a forecaster," he said. He has worked as a weather forecaster ever since.
"I especially love working tactical operations," he further explained. "There are instances where I have been relied upon by a commander to identify a very brief window of opportunity in the weather for that unit to deliver resources to troops in need. With weather operations you get those opportunities to help Soldiers in dire situations. That's when you know you add value. That's why I do this job."
Master Sgt. Rogers' love of his work is shared by Senior Airman Napolitano-Romero, a native of Lynchburg, Va., on her first combat deployment.
"I have never experienced job satisfaction like I have experienced it with [Task Force Wings]," said Senior Airman Napolitano-Romero. "Out here, you know that the work you are doing is being relied upon by pilots and staff. You also know they appreciate that work and that you are making a difference every day. That's rewarding."