Eye to the sky:Wright-Patt weather watchers alert for twisters, storms

They never stop watching the sky at Wright-Patterson.

Seven days a week, every day of the year, and around the clock someone is watching the weather in a windowless room with a wall of screens filled with radar and satellite images of what’s around the airfield and the world.

While storms swirled around the Miami Valley region last month, base forecasters issued a tornado warning.

Gates closed. People took shelter.

And two tornadoes minutes apart May 24 were confirmed spinning just four miles outside the sprawling installation.

“Everything that we issue, every weather advisory, every weather watch or every warning has some type of impact on somebody here on this base,” said James Lane, senior operational meteorologist. “It drives actions.”

Atmospheric Technology Services Co. of Norman, Okla., has about a half a million dollar annual contract to employ six meteorologists in the 88th Operations Support Squadron Base Weather Office in a building on the main flight line at Wright-Patterson.

Predicting the once unpredictable

With two airfields and the state’s largest workplace site, meteorologists stay focused on how weather impacts the 8,145-acre installation, looking out around a 10-mile radius and beyond to see what’s incoming. And they brief pilots preparing for flights from Wright-Patt to points around the world, telling them what to expect from Alaska to Afghanistan.

The meteorologists, who have an average of 28 years tracking and predicting weather, say forecasts have become better and more accurate in recent decades. Still, every hour they step outside to check.

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Advances in weather radar give greater accuracy to predict and spot tornadoes, they say. “I think because of the technology advances of radar, we’re saving a lot of lives,” Lane said.

Airfield sensors detect lighting, wind speed, visibility conditions, and temperature among a plethora of data meteorologists tap into to keep the base weather aware. What they learn has headed up the chain of command quickly.

Col. Bradley McDonald arrived at Wright-Patterson less than an hour when the new installation commander got a phone call from the base weather office.

Incoming weather looked bad, and a tornado might be possible, he was told.

On that day, a tornado didn’t drop out of the sky, remembered Lane, who placed the call to new commander.

Still, since then last year, McDonald said, base meteorologists have alerted him to tornado warnings and incoming weather threats, work he said is vital to “make sure that we have insight so that we can prepare for whatever we need to prepare for.”

Not the National Weather Service

Wright-Patterson advisories or warnings may be different than the National Weather Service, which looks at a broader geographic region, Lane said.

“There’s been instances in the past, not a lot, but severe weather instances where we’ve had a tornado warning out, we’ve sounded the sirens, and nothing has been going on around the local area yet,” Lane said.

Meteorologists interviewed could not recall a tornado touchdown on Wright-Patterson.

But weather casters kept a close eye in June 2012 on a storm front headed to the base the same day tens of thousands were anticipated for Freedom’s Call Tattoo on the grounds of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

When the storm arrived, it packed strong winds that blew over tents, sent debris flying and caused a partial collapse of a stage. The event was canceled before thousands showed up, but 16 people working to get things ready for the crowd were injured, most from flying debris, archives show.

Threatening thunderstorms scuttled the event a second time just before crowds were expected in 2015.

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The Air Force Marathon, which brings more than 15,000 runners around the globe to Wright-Patterson, tests weather casters, too.

The series of races are “very sensitive with weather,” said Scott Lutz, a meteorologist. “It could be temperatures, it could be just lighting where you’ve got a number of people out on the course running.”

Thunderstorms scrubbed one of the marathon’s 5K runs at Wright State University’s Nutter Center in recent years, weather casters said.

Snow and Arctic-like subzero chills have packed a punch, too.

Nearly two feet of snow fell in a pre-Christmas storm in December 2004, paralyzing the region and Wright-Patterson.

Meteorologist Brent Sullins stayed on the base overnight so he could make his work shift the next day. “It shut everything down,” he said.

Historical records show five inches of snow “will typically shut down the base,” Lane said.

That’s because of the number of parking lots, streets to clear and plows needed to keep the airfield open, meteorologists said.

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