LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. --
Take a moment and paint a picture. You are a pilot for an F-35A Lightning II aircraft and are executing your pre-flight checklist at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.
All lights are green, the aircraft is fueled, and the tower gives you the go-ahead. As you taxi to the end of the runway, you hear over the radio that the flight is cancelled due to weather.
That night, Arizona becomes host to one of the worst windstorms in its history, appearing completely unexpectedly and causing thousands of dollars of damage to the local area. While frustrating because it halted a training mission, the weather warning protected hundreds of F-35s and F-16s from damage, but more importantly it potentially saved lives.
Fortunately, the 56th Operations Support Squadron’s weather flight is Luke AFB’s first line of defense for inclement weather.
“The weather flight is essentially responsible for all things weather, not only on the airfield but our various ranges throughout Arizona, extending to New Mexico and California,” said Staff Sgt. Craig Cassell, 56th OSS weather flight shift supervisor. “Not only are we getting a feel for the environment in the valley and over the airfield, but also to [different] ranges. Our squadrons are flying and conducting missions and exercises, everything from air-to-ground weapons targeting to air-to-air simulated combat.”
Though the weather tends to be consistent in southern Arizona, heavy rains, thunderstorms, flash floods, and dust storms are common.
“Usually it’s going to be hot, dry and windy. But this is really where we make our money, so to speak, with the monsoon season,” said Cassell. “We start to get more moisture over the southwest United States. A thunderstorm [can] develop over the mountains, collapse, and all that energy converts to wind to kick up giant dust storms. Not really fun for anyone, especially the pilots who can’t see through all the sand and dirt. It can be quite destructive if there are strong winds behind it.”
With a variety of weather-related dangers, Cassell said the weather flight shares its forecasts with several base entities, depending on the weather scenario. If the fire department is doing a controlled burn, for example, firefighters need to understand where the smoke’s going to blow or if rain is expected, the forecast could help exercise planners determine if it will degrade the effects of the exercise, Cassell added.
“For [the] airfield, we forecast what the weather will be like here at Luke for takeoff and landings,” said Staff Sgt. Cody Schneider, 56th OSS weather forecaster. “We provide asset and personnel protection through our WWAs, or Warnings, Watches and Advisories. We strive for accuracy in how long a warning will last, staying efficient and keeping the mission going.”
Cassel said two common WWAs issued at Luke are for flood warnings and warnings of lighting within five miles of the flightline.
“We also have warnings for wind, heat, thunderstorms or any sort of inclement weather. Tornadoes, hurricanes and the like don’t really reach this far inland, but it’s still a possibility. It’s rare for it to get cold enough to warrant a notice, such as the formation of ice on the airfield, but it could still pose a problem.”
Many scenarios could temporarily halt flight and maintenance operations, which is why the wing’s mission greatly depends on the weather flight, said Cassell. With accurate, timely information, Airmen planning operations or exercises can prepare for any weather contingency, which leads to improved pilot training.
“Student pilots have certain thresholds in which they can fly in as they gain their qualifications to graduate,” said Cassell. “Things like turbulence or crosswinds make it more difficult to take off, which could pose a problem for both experienced and inexperienced pilots. That’s an area in which we come in handy. If there are reductions in visibility or inclement weather such as thunderstorms, that’s going to prevent them from getting off the ground.”
The weather flight also offers long-range forecasting that enables squadrons develop flight and maintenance operations plans for several days at a time based on environmental conditions. This not only maximizes how many jets and pilots can fly, but also contributes to safety by protecting both resources and personnel from the elements.
“We don’t want maintainers on the flight line working on jets during a lightning warning, for obvious reasons,” said Cassell. “Same thing with strong winds. If we get a strong enough gust with not enough time to tie down equipment, we could have it blowing around.”
In a place like Luke AFB, the weather is generally benign; as a result, the weather flight has to be at the top of their game when the unexpected happens. In the southwest desert climate, harsh weather can come out of nowhere at a moment’s notice. With sharp minds and hard work, the 56th OSS weather flight keeps an eye on the sky, providing pilots, both students and instructors, with lifesaving information every day of the week.