Weather unit at Robins Air Force Base keeps constant watch

Unit at Robins keeps constant watch on skies

wcrenshaw@macon.comJune 25, 2014 

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE -- A small group of airmen at Robins are responsible for protecting about $8 billion in military assets and personnel from the ravages of nature.

The 78th Operations Support Squadron’s weather flight is a 24/7 operation that monitors the weather not only around Robins but also across the globe. That’s because assets at Robins like J-STARS could be operating anywhere. They can communicate directly with those air crews wherever they are in the world.

“If Robins Air Force Base assets are operating in Japan, we have to be prepared to give that commander a situational update on weather in Japan just as quickly as we do here,” said meteorologist Roddy Nixon. “That’s the unique difference between our technicians and our National Weather Service counterparts. They are focused on that one particular (area).”

Nixon is one of two civilians in the unit along with nine airmen. Their key mission is to provide early warning to the base to keep personnel and equipment be protected from bad weather.

If severe tropical weather is expected, planes can be moved to other bases. But there’s a challenge at Robins, which overhauls aircraft. At any given time, most of the planes on the flight line are not able to fly. But those planes can be turned into the expected wind direction to minimize damage.

Lightning is the most common reason for warnings to be issued. The weather flight uses satellite imagery to see all lightning in the area. Once lightning is detected within five miles, a warning goes out over the base’s “Giant Voice” system, as well as alerts being sent to all computers on base. Once the warning is sent, all flight line activity ceases, and everyone must get inside until an all-clear is sent. It’s a fairly common occurrence during the summer months.

The flight has its own weather sensors, including a Doppler radar in Jeffersonville. Nixon said it’s Middle Georgia’s only Doppler radar. Data from the radar is provided for commercial use.

“Any other Doppler data that you see from any other source comes from us,” Nixon said. “If anybody tells you it’s their Doppler, no, it’s mine.”

Capt. Tracy Pete, commander of the weather flight, started in the Air Force as an enlisted airman. She was inspired to go into meteorology by one of her hometown forecasters.

“A local forecaster where I am from in Syracuse, New York, was a meteorologist for the Air Force, and I thought that was pretty cool so I wanted to try something different,” she said.

Nixon has been in the business 30 years. He said the ability to give early warning for severe weather has improved dramatically in that time, not only in predictions but also in communication, such as social media.

“There’s so many better ways to get the information out there,” he said. “Will we get to a point where we don’t lose lives? No. But we are losing far less lives today than we were 30 years ago.”

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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