At the 618th Air Operations Center (TACC), Winter is 24/7/365 for Global Mobility Weather Operations Directorate

By MS. KIM KNIGHT, Staff Writer

Part of our country has mild winters, while it is freezing cold elsewhere. At the Global Weather Operations Directorate (XOW), a subordinate unit of the 618th Air Operations Center (AOC), Tanker Airlift Control Center (TACC), at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, personnel provide weather support for Air Mobility Command (AMC) missions around the world. That means they must think about winter all year long.

XOW teams continuously monitor and relay global weather data, which helps AMC senior leaders make informed decisions. The group plays a vital role in both mission planning and execution because cold temperatures and winter weather phenomena can affect elements of any operation—personnel, equipment, and aircraft. It can dictate how long maintainers work and what types of equipment are needed (i.e., deicing trucks for aircraft, salt trucks for the airfield and runway). Other dynamic issues may include aircraft icing while in flight and weather condition changes at an arrival destination, but accurate forecasts allow time to plan around and adjust for these conditions.

Flight managers, also known as “virtual crew members”, work hand-in-hand with directorates such as XOW to compile critical information and provide accurate flight plans to AMC aircrew.

“While we are always safety conscious, we work with the crews and ground support to keep the mission moving,” explained Flight Manager Randy Johns. “Potential hazards include cold temperatures on the ground or at altitude. While in flight, certain aircraft may need to descend a little to avoid extreme cold that can freeze fuel. Also, many cold weather patterns are associated with turbulence. This turbulence can be severe and is very common on oceanic crossings. Another significant cold weather hazard is aircraft icing which can be extremely dangerous during the most critical phases of flight, including takeoff, initial climb-out, and final descent.”

Johns and about 100 additional FAA certified flight managers within 618 AOC (TACC) work to mitigate weather hazards by getting urgent weather forecasts to crews wherever they are.

“For us, winter is every day of the year because our AOR [Area of Responsibility] is the entire world,” he explained. “We deal with cold, snow, and ice, even in August. Summer here means winter somewhere else.”

Several teams in 618 AOC (TACC) start gathering information two weeks before high-vis missions occur. For example, MSgt Jerrimy S. Erskine is Manager of the Weather Plans division. He and his seven-member team focus on medium- to long-range forecasts and mission planning efforts for Mobility Air Forces.

“We know about a week ahead where area storms may track,” he said. “The difficulty that far out is we might not know how it will affect a particular base, but I start briefing leadership if we see something. It pays off, especially in winter, because we can still massage plans so we do not see a significant impact to operations even if a major system pushes through. As we come closer to the window of mission execution, that is when MSgt VanderSys comes in.”

MSgt Kevin R. VanderSys is the Manager of the Global Weather Operations division at 618 AOC (TACC). He oversees a 34-member team that disseminates up to the minute weather support for over 72,000 sorties a year. His team’s focus is on short-range forecasting, and he admits forecasting snowfall can occasionally be difficult.

“Systems sometimes change abruptly at or near takeoff,” he said. “The key is staying on top of it and relaying updates as we watch the mission from start to finish. As soon as we see something, we immediately walk over to the flight manager, who will initiate plans for added fuel and alternate locations. The aircrew may also contact us directly for additional updates.”

Diverting to an alternate location happens often during winter months, according to Johns.

“Many times, we plan for crews to carry additional fuel to ensure they have enough if they need to divert,” he said. “Fuel planning is important to make sure they can get to somewhere besides where they need to go. Sometimes the crews and I talk directly to mitigate an issue. We are mission oriented, but we can cancel if we have to. “

Gathering all of the weather data is a collective effort. VanderSys says they get most of their information from offsite resources via the internet.

“We compile U.S. Air Force weather information with that from the National Weather Service and elsewhere—things like real-time data, satellite and radar images, hourly airfield observations, and forecast products. We monitor conditions all over the world constantly, watching for changes and looking to see what missions may be impacted.”

Learning to analyze and interpret weather charts, encode and decode alphanumerical products, and integrate that information into operations is not for everyone. Extensive training starts with an eight-month initial skills course at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, where enrollees study those subjects and also learn about atmospheric dynamics and weather phenomena.

“Once they arrive at the AOC,” said VanderSys, “they receive more training. They also learn about the XOW’s mission in support of the 618 AOC—how to mitigate the effects of weather and its impacts.”

The 618 AOC, including the Global Weather Operations Directorate, is manned 24/7/365 and is rarely caught off guard by winter storms, thanks to the many real-time tools available to them. Rest assured, however, that if an unexpected winter event occurs, they will be hard at work with leadership and flight managers to make any necessary changes to keep Airmen safe.