What I Did in the War – Observed Weather.

That is what I did in the Air Force for four years. Don’t laugh. Lots of your tax dollars went into training me and my fellow weather observers. And it isn’t as easy as it sounds. We didn’t just stand around all day gazing heavenward through our AF issue sunglasses. Yes, they actually did issue us sunglasses. How cool was that?

Just what did we do you ask? We observed weather and recorded it on a form WBAN10 (pronounced “way-ban ten”), encoded it, and sent it out over teletype every hour, sometimes more often if changing conditions met the criteria for a “Special Observation.” The data included cloud cover layers, height and amount, surface visibility, weather (if any), altimeter setting, temp, dew point, winds, barometric pressure, and lots of supporting comments when necessary. This information was sent out all over the world for anyone to use.

Lane PIBALWhat else did we do? Depends. Some of us, like moi, got to go temporary duty (TDY) to a place like Cuddyback AGGR (Air to Ground Gunnery Range) in the middle of the Mojave Desert. At Cuddy we supplied surface observations (obs taken at the ground level) and winds-aloft obs (wind speed and direction at 1,000 foot intervals above the station). The latter involved launching a 1,000 gram helium-filled weather balloon called a PIBAL (pilot balloon) and tracking it with an instrument called a theodolite, recording azimuth and elevation angles at one minute intervals, plotting those and deriving wind speed and direction at various altitudes above the station. The AF found this helpful for calculating bomb trajectories, and Cuddy was a bombing range. (I guess the AF just “winged it” when they had to drop real bombs on the enemy and no AF weather observer happened to be hanging around the target area taking PIBAL obs?) The U.S. Army also found it useful for calculating artillery trajectories. Winds aloft can seriously affect where a 155mm shell lands 20 miles away, which could be meaningful to friendly troops on the ground near the target.

Very generally speaking, most weather observers had two main operational environments. The first being in Base Weather, usually housed with Base Operations. This is where the pilots came for weather briefings and filing flight plans. The place was (in my day 1968-72) cluttered with all manner of weather maps and bits of teletype paper torn into strips according to their source and content and posted on clip boards for the duty forecaster to use. That was the olden days; they use computers now. The observer mainly supported the forecaster and his job of creating forecasts for the station and briefing pilots.

The second duty station was the representative observation site (ROS). They were usually located out along the main runway to collect data closest to where it would be used. The observer worked alone out there and took observations and transmitted them as described earlier.

Lane Alaska_1Weather observing was actually a great job, but it had its negatives. Aside from doing two week TDYs at places like Cuddyback, the AF had a need to collect weather observations from some very remotely located places, like the wildernesses of Alaska. These weather stations were located at AF radar stations in the middle of nowhere again. The observer would find himself with usually less than 100 other lost souls at a station in the Alaskan wilderness hundreds of miles from anything remotely resembling civilization (meaning no McDonalds) and the only way in and out was by AF planes, which had to be ski equipped in the winter. I was at one of those, King Salmon AFS, but it was larger (about 200 lost souls) and had a paved runway. That was because it was the home of armed interceptor aircraft standing by to scramble against any Russkies who might get frisky and violate US air space, which they did fairly often to test our defenses and response times.

Another drawback was the U.S. Army had a need for weather data to conduct field operations, especially those involving helicopters and artillery, but they maintained no weather services. Guess who supplied that? Yep, the Air Force. An observer could find himself assigned to an Army unit and in the field with said unit being shot at. Thankfully, I managed to avoid that aspect of the job. The book Seeing the Elephant by Dave Hornell does a good job of describing what that was like in Vietnam. It is also a humorous read.

Back in the day, during your four-year commitment, most observers would spend at least one of those years at a remote assignment like Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, Korea, or SEA (Southeast Asia – Vietnam or Thailand). Mine was Alaska, which was not bad if you like to hunt and fish like I did.

I just missed a trip to SEA, Thailand to be specific. During my last year at George AFB in California I was assigned to a Bare Base Mobility Team, which was an early version of a rapid deployment force. The team was designed for “bare base operations,” which assumed there were airfields all over the world, either active or not, that could support air combat operations on short notice. We were supposed to have our duffle bags packed and ready to deploy. Upon notice, we would report, draw field issue, including weapons if necessary, and be on a C-130 for somewhere to marry up with our MMQ-2 mobile weather van upon arrival. Security, air traffic control and weather observers were the first to arrive at the new base, which was expected to be conducting air combat operations within 24 hours of our arrival. While I was on a plane headed for eleven months of fishing and hunting in King Salmon, our team was activated and sent to Thailand for a year. Whew!

Another nice thing about duty at King Salmon was it was a joint-use airfield. The civilians were on one side, and the AF was on the other. FAA supplied administrative people, the Weather Bureau supplied the forecasters, and the Air Force supplied air traffic controllers and weather observers. Since I worked with Weather Bureau civilian forecasters for the whole eleven months I was there, I never put on a uniform except to get paid and travel on leave.

All in all, my Air Force service experience was not bad, especially considering the Vietnam War was going on. The work was interesting and frequently challenging, plus I got to meet a lot of great people and visit places I never would have otherwise.


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