SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – For most people, figuring out if a jacket or an umbrella will be needed for the day simply means looking at a smartphone’s weather app and then making a decision. But for the 80th Operations Support Squadron Weather Flight, the decisions made based off a weather forecast involve a lot more pressure.
The 80th OSS Weather Flight’s job at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, is to protect personnel and resources by monitoring radar and satellite feeds to forecast weather in a five mile radius around the base.
“When we first see that we’re expecting a system, we usually start to notice a couple days before,” said Master Sgt. Mark Bryson, 80th OSS Weather Flight chief. “We’ll send an email out to wing leadership saying on this day and this time period, we are expecting significant weather. You might want to start preparing your personnel, equipment and anything that’ll be exposed to this weather. We try to pin down the time as much as we can.”
When it comes to warnings such as a severe thunderstorm or even a tornado, being right takes a lot of work and faith in themselves and their coworkers.
“On the day of, we really focus on our radar and try to catch this stuff as it forms.” Bryson said. “We are trying to forecast this stuff before it hits and even forms and that adds to the difficulty of it. If we waited until these storms formed and were on top of us, we’d be wasting our time.”
Once indicators start appearing on the radar and satellite feeds, the weather flight must decide a course of action.
“If we see those indicators, we have to get the warning out. People’s lives are in jeopardy” Bryson said. “You don’t really have a whole lot of time to sit and wait and go back and forth on a decision.”
The weather flight has a desired lead time of 15 minutes to issue a warning before the expected severe weather is supposed to happen.
“Sometimes we just can’t wait for all these indicators to show up to get that 15 minute lead time before a tornado happens,” said Capt. Gretchen De Blaey, 80th OSS Weather Flight assistant director of operations. “You do want to get it right every time. Few people are very empathetic of that and how hard the Airmen work all day to get it right. When you don’t get it right and every one on base knows it, it’s tough.”
De Blaey talked about the pressures of making the right call with the desired lead time and the potential repercussions if the wrong call is made.
“That’s the pressure we deal with as well, protecting Air Force personnel and assets,” she said. “’Well, do we issue it and have people take shelter or not issue it and then suddenly the storm is right on top of us?’”
Sheppard AFB trains pilots, maintainers and engineers from multiple branches and nations.
When a severe weather warning is issued such as a tornado warning, a shelter in place order is given. This order requires all to stop training and seek cover immediately.
“There are a lot of people out there that have better things to do with their time,” Bryson said. “Commanders need to assure the training gets done. There are student pilots that need to graduate on time, so taking a day or even some time away from that with a false alarm can have a pretty big impact.”
The weather flight makes sure to gather as much information as they can before making the call.
“For severe weather warnings our goal is to have two people looking at the radar to make sure,” Bryson said. “We discuss and go over circumstances with each other and to be on the same page before the warning is issued.”
Once the decision to issue the warning has been made, the 82nd Training Wing Command Post is notified and they disseminate the warning to the base populous as well as sound a warning siren throughout base.
“There’s a lot of trust placed on our shoulders to get it right the best that we can,” Bryson said. “That’s exactly what we do here.”