U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Trisha Briggs, left, a 35th Operations Squadron weather forecaster, and Japan Air Self-Defense Force Airman 1st Class Yukari Okita, right, a 3rd Air Wing weather forecaster, view observations at Misawa Air Base, Japan, Sept. 6, 2017. Observations are forecasts that check the weather into the near future. (Photo by U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Xiomara M. Martinez)
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- An F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot cruises across the cloudless sky, as the yellow sun scorches the canopy with muggy heat pressed against the glass. Suddenly, in the corner of his left eye, he views a storm brewing. Within a matter of seconds dark clouds blanket the sky and blacken as sparks of lightning break through.
"Lightning within five," says a voice on the radio.
Despite Misawa’s ever-changing, unpredictable weather, forecasters with the 35th Operations Support Squadron (OSS) must provide timely, accurate forecasts at a moment’s notice.
“The job is far from boring, there’s always changes,” said Tech. Sgt. Trisha Briggs, a 35th OSS weather forecaster. “It’s great when we predict the weather correctly. It’s fulfilling knowing we’re a big part of the mission. Our own eyes and ears view from the pilots, and when they compliment us on a good weather forecast, it’s great.”
Briggs said, equipped with an accurate forecast, pilots can focus and safely execute the mission.
“Weather is so important to our mission planning; it’s the very first thing we brief every day,” said Maj. Jason Markzon, the 13th Fighter Squadron assistant director of operations. “It’s at the top of every mission planning cell checklist and gets briefed during every sortie at Red Flag. The weather affects the kind of mission we can accomplish and the kind of weapons we are able to employ. If it's bad enough, it can even put an end to the flying day.”
Maneuvering in the weather or in a cloud removes visual reference to the horizon which can cause pilots to become spatially disoriented, not knowing which way is up or down. A fighter pilot has only a few seconds to decide if he or she is going to be able to make a safe landing or have to divert to another airfield with better weather.
“We don’t talk percentages because weather changes are either going to happen or not,” Briggs explained. “If it’s going to happen we need to let them know exactly what’s going to occur.”
The weather flight's mission is to give accurate, timely and relevant information, that extends out 240,000 square miles from the base, to pilots so they can complete sorties.
“At most bases we produce what we call a terminal aerodome forecast which is the official report of forecast for the airfield,” said Briggs. “At Misawa we are unique--the Japan Air Self-Defense Force produces this. U.S. Air Force weather personnel complete observations and coordinate with the Fighter Squadron to execute training missions.”
A typical day in the weather flight varies depending on pilots’ flying schedules. Since Misawa’s weather never stays the same ranging from luminous skies to gloomy temperature drops, the weather flight is always on their feet checking information.
“Being part of the decisions for exercises makes me feel pretty significant and part of a big family,” said Airman 1st Class Anthony Ohara, a 35th OSS weather forecaster. “I’m one of the first people who knows what’s going to happen.”
The forecasters familiarize themselves with a variety of hazardous weather conditions such as freezing rain, snow, haze, floods, fog and excessive heat. All conditions greatly affect air operations by preventing pilots from seeing where to go.
“Getting the most accurate data on forecasts can be very difficult,” said Ohara. "If there’s no accuracy, flight line operations could end up in immense danger, depending on severity.”
Briggs said the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) plays a significant role at Misawa Air Base, even though their procedures are vastly different from the U.S. Air Force.
“Since JASDF controls most of the forecast for the airfield and observations, we try to collaborate as much as possible to make sure we’re consistent with what we’re putting out to the pilots,” explained Briggs. “The observation is the official forecast for the airfields. We try to work together on a regular basis so I’m constantly talking with them.”
The 35th OSS and JASDF forecasters work cohesively predicting weather for a large area ensuring smooth operations in a bilateral environment.
“Working together is great for sharing information,” said JASDF 2nd Lt. Azusa Shirahata, a 3rd Air Wing weather forecaster. “Collaborating helps in creating accurate forecasts and bringing agreements in the U.S. Air Force and JASDF forecasts. We’re able to share different strategies. JASDF completes the official reports, while the U.S. Air Force completes the observations. Overall we’re an excellent team and the job always gets done.”
Whether it’s a thick blanket of fog or a sudden expected storm forecasters from the 35th OSS work with JASDF to keep pilots flying safe and the Misawa mission running smoothly.