Forecast bright, sunny for weather squadron
By Staff Sgt. Raymond Hoy , 30th Space Wing Public Affairs
/ Published December 04, 2006
VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
In the fiery display of a rocket lifting off from its temporary land-based home, the day-to-day operations prior to that spectacular site sometimes get lost in the mix.
For the many weeks prior to lift-off, rocket scientists, technicians, logisticians, and the many other hard-working people needed to achieve the end result, are hard at work planning, fixing and tweaking every last detail.
One facet of preparation that tends to go unnoticed is the work of the many Airmen, civilians and contractors in the 30th Weather Squadron.
A unit with a varied history of activations and deactivations in countries such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Guam, the 30th WS's Vandenberg incarnation offers its members a unique and intense mission that many Airmen at other bases just don't understand.
The 30th WS has 279 separate weather sensors to monitor weather conditions across Vandenberg's more than 99,000 acres.
"Most cities will have a suite of weather sensors at the airport along with whatever the local news outlets maintain," said Maj. Joe Kurtz, 30th WS director of operations. "Our 279 sensors keep us well informed on the weather in and around the base."
A 24 hour operation, the 30th WS's range forecasters have the ability to offer up-to-the-minute weather information using the Advanced Weather Interactive Production Systems, or AWIPS.
AWIPS is an interactive computer system that integrates local and global meteorological and hydrological data, along with satellite and radar images which enables 30th WS range forecasters to prepare and issue highly accurate and timely forecasts and warnings.
"We can pull up current atmospheric soundings from weather balloons around the world and compare it to soundings from 24 hours ago to determine how the atmosphere is changing and better predict what will occur in the near-term future," said Tech. Sgt. John David Gasa, 30th WS noncommissioned officer-in-charge of weather operations. "There are 10 to 15 different weather models loaded into AWIPS and we have the ability to compare each model to another. We do this to determine what model is handling our weather the best and this allows us to make the best forecast possible."
"Vandenberg and Patrick are the only weather stations in the Air Force that have AWIPS, as it is a National Weather Service system," he added.
These technical advantages help range forecasters provide the best information available during launch preparations and countdowns.
"We provide cradle-to-grave support," said 2nd Lt. Shenna Storr, 30th WS launch weather officer. "That includes from booster transport and fueling procedures, to the actual countdown itself."
Launch preparation for the 30th WS begins 30 to 60 days in advance of a launch. This includes rehearsals, reviewing documents, creating briefings and schedules, and assembling the launch weather team.
"At our squadron readiness review, we look at model data and climatology, which gives us a rough idea of how weather conditions will be during the launch," Lieutenant Storr said. "In the three days leading up to the launch, we provide the wing and launch agency the probability a weather constraint will be violated."
The 30th WS is not afraid to be the bearer of bad news if the weather is not favorable for the launch.
"When we give the wing and launch agency a probability of violating weather constraints, we have been following model data as a team for over seven days and are very confident with the recommendation we give; and it is not bad news at all, it is the course of action that keeps the mission safe," Lieutenant Storr added.
Despite the ever present Vandenberg fog, the most common launch inhibitor is the wind.
"The winds need to remain below constraints while the rocket is still on the pad so the rocket doesn't topple after it is exposed to the elements or drift into the fixed umbilical tower right after liftoff," Major Kurtz said.
Upper level winds provided by the 30th WS to the launch agency and wing safety also play a critical role. The launch agency uses the wind data to determine if the rocket can fly through the winds and wing safety calculates where debris would fall in the unlikely event of a catastrophic abort.
Vandenberg's rough terrain creates a unique wind flow pattern on different parts of the base. This makes it tricky to forecast winds at launch time.
"There could be little to no wind on parts of north base and 30 knot winds at the (launch) pad on south base, especially Space Launch Complex-6," Major Kurtz said.
The forecasters at the 30th WS are a major part of the launch process; however, they are humble about their efforts when asked.
"The 30th WS is just a small piece of the huge puzzle that goes into a launch," Sergeant Gasa said. "For our part, it is a team effort to determine the launch forecast and not just one person who makes a go or no-go decision at launch time."