Forecasters know 'weather never sleeps'
By Staff Sgt. Benjamin Rojek, 30th Space Wing Public Affairs
/ Published July 15, 2008
VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- From the Atlas V launch five months ago to the upcoming TLV NFIRE launch, personnel with the 30th Weather Squadron here ensure mission success and safety by keeping their heads in the clouds.
It doesn't matter if the vehicle launches from above or below ground; the weather is a key component in the entire launch process.
While an actual missile defense launch may not rely on weather, missile test launches and space launches couldn't go without the weather squadron, said Capt. Jonathan Mason, a launch weather officer with the 30th WS.
"They want to be as safe as they can," Captain Mason said. "Weather has the possibility to trigger lightening or even cause a rocket to go off course and explode."
That's why the weather crew begins planning for a launch more than two weeks out. They start with finding about the platform and what weather constraints would delay or scrap the launch. They began to go through data using the 272 pieces of weather instrumentation around Vandenberg. Finally, in the weeks prior, they begin their forecasts predicting the possibility of a certain constraint being violated, such as a 40 percent chance of cumulus clouds triggering lightening.
Come launch day, the weather team gets to work about six hours before the launch, splitting into three teams: four to six people at the balloon shop, three to five people at the Weather Operations Center and three people at the Western Range Operations Control Center.
Balloon editors and launchers make up the team at the balloon shop. The launchers do just that - launch six to 12 balloons, depending on the mission. Meanwhile, the balloon editors track the balloons as they raise up to the pre-designated height, usually between 80,000 to 120,000 feet. These team members check data such as wind shear levels, where the wind changes speed and direction rapidly.
"The balloon editor and other positions, when they edit the data, it goes to the upper level winds team which is owned by the launch agency," said Tech. Sgt. Corey Latiolais, NCO in charge of weather station operations. "They get this data and run it in their formulas, and based off the data that's out there currently, they can call it if the launch is red (stop) or green (go)."
At the WROCC, the launch weather officer and launch weather commander filter data from the rest of the weather team and make their own decisions regarding the launch.
"The LWO is like the quarterback," Captain Mason said. "You have all these positions on the field, everyone is important, but the quarterback is actually making the throw, making the call, making the signs as to what play we're going to do. It's true in that all this data is funneled through us."
With all these specialty areas, it gives the active duty Airmen a chance to expand their knowledge. Throughout their career at Vandenberg, the squadron members get to move through a variety of positions. For example, Sergeant Latiolais is trained as a range weather forecaster, balloon launcher, balloon editor and more.
It's opportunities like this that make working at the 30th WS here so unique. They are one of two weather squadrons in the Air Force that supports a launch mission on top of other obligations, Sergeant Latiolais said.
"Another thing that makes us unique, if you're attached to an airframe, we're usually at the highest 30,000 to 60,000 feet," Captain Mason said. "But here, you're getting weather data in a weather cube from the ground up to 120,000 feet. We're looking a bigger chunk of weather real estate."
Some people may think that the weather team only works those days during the year that Vandenberg has a launch. However, they still complete their regular, daily mission of weather forecasts and advisories for resource protection. And while they can't control the weather like Zeus, they remain vigilant, always ready to keep Team V and their neighbors safe.
We're here 24/7, 365 babysitting the weather," Captain Mason said. "The weather never sleeps."