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15th OWS advises aircrews during Hurricane Matthew

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Matthew White
  • 15th Operational Weather Squadron

Hurricane Matthew was responsible for billions of dollars worth of damage in addition to claiming hundreds of lives.

As it rolled through the Caribbean and the Bahamas, millions of Floridians evacuated Florida’s east coast as the tropical system inched closer to the United States.

As Hurricane Matthew creeped along the East Coast, concerns grew for exposed military resources and personnel in the area. Among those potentially affected was the 28th Operational Weather Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C. The 28th OWS’s mission is providing weather support for United States Central Command, including Air Force and Army operations ongoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are six of these Operational Weather Squadrons around the globe, including the 15th Operational Weather Squadron, located at Scott Air Force Base. The mission is to provide weather forecasts, including weather watches, warnings, and advisories, all of which are crucial to protecting the equipment, aircraft, personnel, and various other assets of the United States Air Force and Army from any impending threat the weather may produce. For example, if high-speed winds, thunderstorms, or heavy rain is a threat to the mission for a particular base, the responsible OWS will issue the proper warning, giving leaders and decision-makers the time they need to secure valuable equipment, curb on-going missions, and safeguard personnel.

The normal, day-to-day, mission of the 15th OWS is to provide 30-hour weather forecasts for various Air Force and Army bases throughout the Northeastern Continental United States, from the Central Plains to New England.

The 15th OWS issues weather watches and warnings and briefs in- and out-bound pilots on the current flying conditions, notifying them of turbulence, icing, and other weather-related threats.

This is a mission that must be manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. But what happens when one of these OWSs experiences an issue that takes them offline? A service interruption can be as simple as an internet outage affecting the base, or as catastrophic as a hurricane or tornado strike that completely wipes out the facility. In any of these events, the OWS must execute a “COOP,” or Continuity of Operations. During a COOP, the mission of the affected OWS is transferred to one or more of the unaffected OWSs, ensuring the forecast mission endures.

Every year, the weather forecasters at the 15th OWS at Scott Air Force Base initiate a planned exercise COOP with another OWS. This is to test the COOP’s efficiency and effectiveness in the event that an OWS is unable to complete its mission.

“Our COOP capabilities ensure that the sustained essential functions of an OWS can be replicated across the other squadrons in the event one suffers a denial of products and services,” said Maj. Robert Davenport, the Director of Operations at the 15th OWS. “This guarantees continued effective and efficient mission execution support to supported Commanders. The COOP process is often accomplished without the warfighter's notice due to a near zero degradation in mission essential functions from the OWS.”

During one of these COOP exercises, the 15th OWS assumes responsibility for issuing forecasts and picking up other weather-related functions for the area of responsibility of the affected OWS. This means the weather forecasters stationed at Scott AFB must constantly be prepared to issue forecasts not just for the 25-state region of the northeastern United States but for anywhere around the globe.

“COOPing with another OWS means that our weather forecasters here in southern Illinois could potentially be issuing forecasts for Beirut, Lebanon, or Seoul, South Korea on any given day,” said 1st Lt. Richard Anderson, 15th OWS flight commander.

During these COOP exercises, there is little-to-no interruption to the normal operations of the 15th OWS.

“Overall, there wasn’t any major impact to our normal work,” said Senior Airman Christopher Powell, 15th OWS.

The game plan calls for a surge of forecasters to cover the additional workload for up to 72 hours, at which point the affected OWS would either be reconstituted, or their forecasters would be moved to an alternate location to conduct their mission. The COOP plan provides a way to bridge the gap while assessments and decisions are made about how and where to reconstitute a unit, ensuring the mission continues.

As Hurricane Matthew became an impending threat to the operations of the 28th OWS at Shaw Air Force Base, the 15th OWS at Scott AFB was prepared to take over its mission support, to include drawing weather graphics, briefing pilots, and issuing forecasts for operations occurring in the Middle East. While Hurricane Matthew spared Shaw Air Force Base of the worst of its effects, the COOP preparations between the 28th and 15th OWSs demonstrated the tenacity and flexibility required of the weather forecasters and their leadership.

The weather never rests, and neither do the men and women who ensure commanders and decision makers have the weather information they need to mitigate its effects.

“The COOP mission of the 15th OWS ensures our higher headquarters, the 1st Weather Group, is able to meet its global forecasting requirement, no matter the circumstance, and demonstrates the agile and adaptive capabilities of our amazing Airmen,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Sattler, 15th OWS commander.

The weather forecasters at the 15th OWS are equipped with the knowledge and tools to do whatever the mission requires, whether it’s forecasting for the Midwest or the Middle East. There may come a time when they’re called upon to do both.