15th OWS tornado predictions alerted Offutt AFB to take action

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- 

An EF-1 tornado tore through Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., on June 16, leaving a path of destruction in its wake that included downed trees and power lines, and several damaged aircraft.

Just to the south, another tornado assessed as an EF-2 caused significant damage to several housing areas near the base.

The tornadoes were produced by a line of severe thunderstorms that formed and rapidly intensified over eastern Nebraska during the late afternoon and evening hours. In addition to several tornadoes, the storms produced winds that clocked in excess of 100 mph, and dropped hail up to two inches in diameter, causing significant damage to the area and knocking out power to 76,000 homes.

A popular misconception about this particular severe weather event was that it “struck with little-to-no warning.” While tornadoes are often the most difficult weather phenomena to forecast, Airmen from the 15th Operational Weather Squadron, located at Scott, identified the potential for severe weather three days before the storms materialized.

The team of professionals assigned to the 15th OWS did this, in part, because of a newly implemented forecast paradigm called Threat-Based Operations. The 15th OWS is responsible for forecasting for a massive geographic area, including 24 states in the Northeastern Continental United States, as well as Canada and Greenland.

Their mission includes issuing forecasts for 154 Air Force and Army installations, as well as identifying potentially dangerous weather conditions and issuing watches, warnings, and advisories to help protect valuable property and save lives. Their methodology allows leadership the flexibility to allocate the necessary resources wherever manning is needed the most.

On June 14, three days before the storms hit Offutt AFB, the 15th OWS Long-Range Forecast team saw the conditions coming together for a severe weather outbreak, including damaging winds, large hail, and potentially even tornadoes. This information was communicated to the local Offutt AFB weather team and decision makers via a product called the LRF, or Long-Range Forecast, allowing additional time to determine the seriousness of the threat and prepare safety plans.

With the threat identified, the forecasting resources available on the 15th OWS Operations Floor were dynamically shifted to allow increased focus on the storms threatening eastern Nebraska.

“With more forecasters available during a severe weather outbreak, we’re better able to manage the workload each person is responsible for, helping to reduce stress and improve forecast accuracy,” said Maj. Bob Davenport, the 15th OWS Director of Operations. “In the past, the forecaster responsible for Offutt would also have been issuing the forecast for Scott AFB, and potentially handling other responsibilities as well, all distracting from the most important job at the moment.”

In this case, Airman Quincy Jones, the forecaster responsible for Offutt AFB, directed his attention solely to the severe weather threat in eastern Nebraska, ensuring the best possible forecast. This new way of allocating resources based on the threats allowed 15th OWS forecasters to issue a severe thunderstorm watch six hours before the storms hit.

As the system began to develop west of Offutt, the potential threat for tornadoes became substantial. As a result of the impending threat, Jones issued a tornado watch for Offutt, giving the base a two-hour notice before the tornado touched down. The crucial forecast and early warning was paramount in protecting the 10,000-person base population. No injuries were reported as a result of the storms.

As the demand for highly accurate, detailed weather intelligence grows, the responsibilities of the forecasters at the 15th OWS will continue to grow as well, said Davenport.

“Employing the new TBO strategy will ensure forecasters are able to devote their full attention to the most dangerous threats, improving forecasts and giving decision makers as much time as possible to make risk management decisions. In this first true test of the concept, the forecasters at the 15th OWS showed just what a difference it can make,” he said.