UNDISCLOSED LOCATION – U.S. Airmen from the North Carolina Air National Guard's 156th Weather Flight, 145th Air Wing, forecast a severe sandstorm for the 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team five days before it occurred in late February while deployed in the Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility.
"Six days out we saw hints of a dust storm," said Senior Airman Luke Johnson, weather forecaster in the 156th Weather Flight. "We realized the extent of the storm was much larger than we had seen before. Then the model data verified that is was massive in size."
The 156th Weather Flight is attached to the 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT), deployed in support of Operation Spartan Shield. Their forecasts provide critical intelligence for commanders to make decisions. For example, sandstorms can degrade air support assets and the availability of medevac helicopters.
"Out here, there's a vast desert and no data. The only data that exists is what we collect from our sensors," said Air Force Maj. Kevin Brockler, commander, 22nd Expeditionary Squadron. "We can take a satellite shot and still forecast the weather using a weather sensor, current sky conditions, wind speed and wind direction."
The 156th Weather Flight is one of 10 teams in the 22nd Expeditionary Weather Squadron supporting CENTCOM. The 22nd Expeditionary Squadron is a joint force made up of Air Force and Air National Guard weather teams.
Brockler said the teams use an in-depth understanding of Earth's atmosphere, satellite, radar and computer models to provide 24-7 weather forecasts for decision-makers to protect resources and exploit the battlefield. He added that it was through the team's collaborative efforts that they were able to predict the significant sandstorm.
"Within 5 minutes, I couldn't see 10 feet in front of me," Johnson said. "Winds were 50 mph and everything had a dark orange tint to it. If you don't have your mouth shut, you're going to get a sand-wich."
Airmen assigned to support Army elements attend a 30-day tactical course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Brockler said the training teaches the weather Airmen the importance of their role in assisting Army commanders making decisions on the battlefield.
"The staff weather officer (SWO) has a tough job. They have to brief their Army O-6's, look them in the eye, and recommend whether a mission can or cannot go based on weather thresholds and their expertise," said Brockler.
He said that when the U.S. Army Air Corps transitioned to separate services in 1947, it was agreed that the Air Force would continue to provide weather assets to Army units. That agreement still stands.
"When the 30th needs to pack up and get in the fight, we hop into the back of the Bradley (armored multipurpose vehicle) with the rest of y'all," said Tech. Sgt. Robbie Casperson, 156th Weather Flight, staff weather officer (SWO). "We travel and provide weather support in real time as you move through the battlefield. If your unit is moving and fighting, we are moving with you, providing weather forecasts for that day's fight and the next."