Tag Archives: Air Weather Service

“You going to wear that?”

I used to consider myself a pretty good dresser. (Note the past tense.) As finances allowed, I stayed up with the styles, especially when younger. While in school, we young men were careful not to make any fashion faux pas that might hurt our chances with the ladies. We would exchange the latest fashion trends amongst ourselves. (Surprised, ladies?)

I worked in a men’s store part-time while in college and learned many things about the proper gentlemanly dress from another salesman who was a VERY dapper dresser, and the women absolutely loved him. From that experience, I learned about proper trouser length, how much cuff should show from under the sleeves of your coat, proper color matching, NEVER mix patterns (which seems to be de rigueur these days, go figure), and other sundry dressing codes for young men.

This carried forward even into my military service. My uniforms were always starched with creases sharp enough to cut thick-skinned tomatoes into paper-thin slices. My sense of style even got me into trouble when I tapered my trousers. My CO obviously wasn’t as fashion conscious as I was, and he made me take the taper out.

Even though my business life after the service, I was required to wear suits to work and I even enjoyed it. As the years passed, the dress codes relaxed to allow just trousers and a nice shirt—but no jeans. Then dress-down Friday came along, and “nice” jeans were allowed. As I neared retirement, even jeans became acceptable every day. Ah, the times they were a-changin’. But that excluded wives.

Eventually, every married male will, at some time, hear that fear-inducing question from their spouse concerning whatever it is they have on when about to head out for the night’s festivities. It comes in three versions, representing ascending levels of both distaste and threats should the offensive behavior continue. Whatever the level of distaste expressed, they all come at that moment when the spouse steps out of the bathroom fully dressed to the nines and encounters innocent you standing there buttoning the last button on your shirt or tidying up the knot of your tie. Let me expand on this below.

Threat Level 1 – She steps forth from the bathroom and finds you standing there. She stops in her tracks. One eyebrow goes up and the other goes down in a questioning glare that begins at your feet and slowly makes its way up to the top of your head. The innocent (clueless) you look like a deer caught in the headlights of a car that is a half a second away from the impact. You very stupidly say, “What?”

Here it comes. In a tone that suggests only mild disagreement with your fashion choices, she casually tosses out (like a hand grenade), “You going to wear that?”

Gentlemen, let me clearly state that “yes” is the wrong answer. Don’t waste your time arguing. Whatever you have on must be changed immediately.

Threat Level 2 – Same scenario as above, but this time that question is asked just a bit differently. It comes out as, “You going to wear THAT?” Note the very strong emphasis on “that.”

Gentlemen, a “yes” answer will mean being sent to the couch for at least three nights. Don’t even think of going there, but tuck your tail and find something to wear that she approves of.

Threat Level 3 – Same scenario but this time the question becomes a command, “You are NOT going to wear THAT!”

Gentlemen, a “yes” reply here will ultimately involve lawyers and cost you lots of money—assuming you survive the night. Save yourself some grief and just let her pick something out, put it on, and shut up.

I don’t know what happened to our sense of fashion between our early years and retirement, but we obviously lost it along the way. At least, that’s what my wife tells me whenever I attempt to dress for some social event.

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WOXOF

I sometimes visit a FaceBook page for USAF Weather. Someone there posted a question about the most unusual weather you ever encountered. I jumped in with an account of an incident that happened to me while serving as an Air Force weather observer at King Salmon AFS, Alaska (AKN). King Salmon was a small Air Force radar site on the base of the Alaskan peninsula southwest of Anchorage. It is closed now. AKN also had a paved runway and alert aircraft armed and ready to scramble to protect all you folks down in the “lower 48” as they would say up there

King Salmon MapI usually worked mid-shifts. That is from midnight to 0800. I liked mids because they were usually quiet. Unlike my previous assignment at George AFB, California, which was in the middle of the Mojave Desert and void of any weather most of the time, AKN was a busy little weather station. We got lots of snow, rain, wind, and fog depending on the time of the year.

On this mid-shift, it was a cold and a relatively weatherless winter night with clear skies and unlimited visibility. From my reclining desk chair with my feet propped up on the equipment console and with only minor swiveling, I could easily see about 250 degrees of the horizon, and nothing was happening. The neighborhood bear had already made his rounds of the village garbage cans and had passed the ROS (Representative Observation Site – the weather station) moving on to fresher cans on the south end of the runway. On this quiet night, I had been writing a letter home with occasional glances at the horizon I could see.

About fifteen minutes before the hour I stood to walk out onto the catwalk surrounding our second floor perch we called the ROS to take my required hourly observation, and low and behold what do I see on the moonlit horizon that had been hidden from my casual view by the weather console, but FOG! Lots of fog! A solid wall of fog moving toward the station.

Station visibility is calculated by the visual sighting of certain landmarks at a known distance from the station and was suppose to represent over half of the horizon circle. Well, one half of the horizon circle was rapidly disappearing as that fog bank rolled silently and relentlessly toward me.

I was scheduled to take an “hourly” observation, encode that, and transmit it on the hour. If certain conditions regarding weather, winds, visibility, or cloud cover were met that were clearly spelled out in standard operating procedures (SOPs), I was required to take an abbreviated “special obs” (special observation) and transmit that. And some of those “certain conditions” were being met as I stood dumbfounded looking at that fog bank. I promptly took a special and transmitted it and then immediately went back to completing my hourly and transmitted that.

The fog rolled relentlessly on and was enveloping the station. Visibility was rapidly dropping, requiring another special, and that was followed by another almost immediately. In about 15 minutes, AKN went from clear and unlimited visibility to a condition, in weather reporting parlance, called “WOXOF.” Translated: zero feet visibility and zero feet ceiling in fog. AKN, as an airport, was effectively shut down.

With my weather observations and reports reflecting current conditions, I stood there surrounded by gray nothingness and tried to calm my rapidly beating heart. That’s when the phone rang, and that would be the duty forecaster back at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage, and he wanted to know what the hell was going on?

“Fog bank rolled in and socked-in the station.”

“You should have warned me it was happening. You blew my forecast!” he fairly screamed.

I didn’t say it but was thinking, I didn’t create this soup. Maybe it was you who blew the forecast?

That was life for weathermen in the wilds of Alaska in the winter, but there is another story I want to tell. It also happened on a mid-shift and during another period of WOXOF.

Several airmen from the King Salmon AFS decided to walk to Naknek, which is a little fishing village few miles up the road. The night was very foggy, and along comes a local in his car hauling down the gravel road and hits one of the walking airmen. And he was hurt badly, bad enough his injuries were potentially fatal and beyond the equipment and skills of the “docs” at AKN who were really Air Force trained medics. Evacuation back to the hospital at Elmendorf AFB was called for, and that meant by air, as there was no other way. A crew was pulled together, and the four turboprops of a C-130 were fired up at Elmendorf.

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They arrived at AKN with WOXOF conditions at the station. Normally, that would have meant no landing would be attempted for safety reasons, but this was an emergency. A man was badly hurt and might not live without the care he could get only back at Elmendorf.

The air traffic controllers at AKN attempted to guide the pilot down for a landing using the GCA radar (Ground Controlled Approach). They watched the GCA screen, told the pilot what to do, and he listened and did as they said, because he could see exactly zero. He was making a blind approach in the dark at an airport with the ceiling and visibility both at zero and trusting the training and judgment of a three-striper staring at a blip on a radar screen. The pilot was instructed by the controller to tell him as soon as he saw the approach lights, and these are VERY bright strobe lights. He didn’t see them even though the GCA indicated he was right over them.

“Execute missed approach and try again,” he was told.

The pilot powered up the four engines of the big cargo plane and climbed back up to go around for another attempt. The controller clearly heard him as he flew passed halfway down the runway where the GCA radar was located.

The pilot brought the C-130 around for another GCA approach and was talked down by the controller watching that blip that represented that plane on the radar screen. Again he was told to tell the controller when he had the approach lights or the runway in view.

Following the verbal instructions from the controller telling him if he was on or missing the glide path, the pilot skillfully settled that C-130 down closer to the ground as he approached the end of the runway. The controller knew where the plane was relative to the end of the runway, but the pilot did not. “You should have a visual on the end of the runway. You are right over it!”

“Negative.”

“Execute missed approach!”

That was followed by silence for a moment or two. “Too late. I’m on the ground,” said the pilot as the controller heard the plane with its prop’s blade pitch reversed and four engines screaming to stop the C-130’s roll down the runway.

“You had a visual on the runway?”

“Negative. Never saw it until the wheels touched. You did a great job!”

Trusting in the GCA controller’s training and judgment, that crew risked their lives to get that wounded airman back to Elmendorf that night. The pilot told air traffic control at AKN, “One way or another, I was putting that plane down on the runway.”

 

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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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Three Strikes and You Are Out!

Time for another war story…

While stationed at George AFB in Victorville, CA as a 25251 Weather Observer, I was often sent on two-week TDYs (Temporary Duty) to Cuddyback Air to Ground Gunnery Range about 60 miles north of George. Cuddy was quite literally in the middle of nowhere. It was a dry lake in a shallow valley hemmed in by low mountains.

As a weather observer, it was my job to supply winds-aloft observations for the pilots to use in judging their bomb trajectories and strafing runs. To calculate winds aloft we launched a 1,000 gram balloon and tracked it with a theodolite, taking elevation and azimuth readings every 60 seconds. All this was explained here if interested.

To get to Cuddy you had three choices: drive your own POV (privately owned vehicle), which would leave Janis without a car for a week at a time, or arrange for Motor Pool to drive you up Sunday night, the most common method, or take the air taxi shuttle Monday morning. The shuttle flight usually left too late for the observers to use it. We had to take our first winds aloft and surface obs (observations) at least four hours before the first mission arrived over the range. The RO (range officer) used the air shuttle and arrived only an hour or so before the first mission.

DAYTON, Ohio -- De Havilland U-6A Beaver at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio — De Havilland U-6A Beaver at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

When I first arrived at George, they were using a single-engine, de Havilland U-6 Beaver, which is built in Canada and commonly used by bush pilots in both Canada and Alaska. The U-6 was a six-seater (five passengers plus the pilot). For some reason I can’t recall, I was taking the U-6 up on this particular trip to Cuddy.

We take off and in only a few minutes (60 miles, remember) we are letting down onto Cuddy’s paved runway. All seemed to be going smoothly, “seemed” being the operative word here.

I had watched many U-6 landings while up at Cuddy, so I knew what to expect. The parking apron, which is right in front of Cuddy’s tower, is about half way down the runway. The U-6 is a STOL aircraft (Short Take Off and Landing), so it normally uses barely half the runway and pulls right into the parking apron.

But this landing…

We touch down and the parking apron is coming up fast. I am thinking, How is he going to slow this thing down soon enough to be able to pull into the apron?

Short answer: he wasn’t going to make it, but not for want of trying.

The pilot hit the breaks and starts his turn, and we zip right through the parking apron and spin off into the desert, like a 360 degree spin off into the desert!

The Beaver comes to a stop, and the pilot kind of looks sheepishly back at me and the other passenger in the back. “That’s what you call a ground loop.”

Swell! Just get me off this plane!

I should have learned my lesson. I didn’t.

h1fAbout a year later, they replaced the U-6 with a UH-1 Huey helicopter, and even though the Huey would not be my first helicopter ride, I had to try that puppy. So, I sign up for another Monday morning milk run to Cuddy in the Huey.

The RO and I are all loaded in the Huey waiting on the pilot to board and light up the turbine engine. I got suspicious this lark of a trip might not be such a good idea, because I am watching the pilot and the crew chief have an animated conversation involving lots of arm waving and finger pointing, mostly in the direction of the Huey I am sitting in.

Eventually, we took off and made the trip without incident, like crashing or something. Later that day while having lunch in the chow hall, I heard some of the Cuddy regulars talking about how they had grounded the Huey because of engine issues when it got back to George.

Three strikes and you are out? I used motor pool for all my trips to Cuddy after that.

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Whose idea was this, anyway?

Lane Alaska_1It was Halloween 1972, and in the vernacular of the times, I was “short with 31 days and a wake-up” before discharge from the Air Force on 2 December. My roommate and fellow weather observer Phil (last name redacted) had a bit longer to go but not much more. With our four years of service so close to finished, we are in a festive mood.

We were stationed at King Salmon AFS, Alaska, a remote Air Force station along the Naknek River in the Alaskan wilderness. The town of King Salmon, with a population of less than 200 souls, mostly FAA and weather bureau types, with a few locals, plus maybe another 150 Air Force personnel, decided to throw a Halloween costume party. You can’t pop into Walmart or the Dollar General on the way home and scoop up a quick and cheap costume, because there is nothing in King Salmon even remotely resembling such a place. Ya gotta get creative. I didn’t bother, but Phil took it as a challenge.

King Salmon MapOne of the Weather Bureau forecasters we worked with (USAF supplied the weather observers) was married to a German lady he met while stationed in Germany when in the AF. (Wish I could remember their names.) She and Phil cooked up a costume for him to wear.

Phil was going to the party in drag. He was pretending to be the visiting sister of the lady from Germany, and “she” (Phil) was named “Elsa.” Elsa didn’t speak English, and no one in King Salmon spoke German, so Phil only had to say things like ja and nein while fluttering his fake eyelashes.

I had worked a day shift at the weather station, so I arrived late at the home of Elsa’s “sister” to meet them to go to the party in downtown King Salmon, which consisted of a general store and a bar. Phil/Elsa was already costumed and made-up, and “she” was getting into character, fluttering those fake eyelashes and pursing those red lips seductive-like.

King SalmonAnd let me tell you, Elsa was one pug-ugly woman!

Laughs over, we made our way “downtown” for the party. The hall was decorated with orange and black crape-paper, and a scratchy phonograph turned up very loud supplied the dance music.

And everyone was smitten by the “exotic” Elsa. Considering that Phil worked part-time in the general store, and everyone in King Salmon knew him well, surprisingly, only a few figured out the pug-ugly Elsa was really Phil. Some of those in on it asked Elsa to dance to further perpetuate the hoax.

King Salmon Sat2Don’t-ya-know, someone falls in love with Elsa! I mean head-over-heels in love with pug-ugly Elsa. The poor misguided sucker was a local native-American. Phil was about six feet tall, and Tonto is barely five feet tall and getting along in age. Other than the fact that Tonto was obviously drunk, I am thinking he fell in love with Elsa, because when he danced with her, his head fit nicely between her breasts, which must have been rather lumpy since they were made of toilet paper stuffed in a bra.

While dancing, Tonto would look up from between those “mounds of joy” and ask Elsa questions or comment on how cute she was, and Elsa would flutter her eyelashes and mutter ja or nein, whichever seemed appropriate at the time.

This was all rather hilarious for those of us in on the gag, but it began to get serious.

At first we thought this was just a passing infatuation on the part of Tonto, but he kept asking Elsa to dance. To complicate things, Tonto had friends at the party, and they were all probably armed with knives and maybe even an ulu or two. (Google it.)

Alaskan_Air_CommandWe decided this had the potential to get real ugly very fast. Phil was getting nervous and concluding this was a bad idea. Meanwhile, I suddenly get a mental picture of the fists and ulus coming out, followed by an Air Force Times headline that read, “U.S. Air Force Declares War on Eskimos!”

Time to decamp! Someone distracted Tonto, and Elsa slipped out a back door. Then we had to deal with the lovesick Tonto pining for his lost Elsa, and that was a pitiful sight. The poor man really was in love—or maybe just in lust for the “lovely” Elsa—with the lumpy boobs—right at face level.

I wonder if he ever found out Elsa was a guy?

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PIBALS, Helium, and Boys

Lane PIBALBeing in the Air Force as a weather observer, we had access to some really large weather balloons, mostly red where I was, and the helium needed to inflate them.

We blew these things up with a specific amount of helium so they would rise at a known rate of assent and tracked them with a device called a theodolite. At night we attached a small flashlight size bulb with a water-activated battery and tracked that tiny light up to 10,000 feet. We usually cheated and use two lights to make tracking easier. Kinda hard to see that tiny light against the bright stars we had in the clear skies of the Mojave Desert where we were taking these PIBAL (Pilot Balloon) obs.

We took azimuth and elevation readings at one-minute intervals and recorded those to plot them and arrive at pretty accurate wind speed and directions at 1,000 foot intervals. We did this at Cuddyback AGGR (Air to Ground Gunnery Range) north of George AFB in the Mojave Desert of southern California. The F-4 fighter crews used our winds aloft obs to adjust their approach and aim on the targets.

Big balloons and helium in the hands of young men who sometimes had too much time on their hands was a combination ripe for mischief.

One of my favorite ploys was to breathe the helium and call Janis, usually around 0100 when she was sound asleep, and talk like I was Donald Duck. The helium affected your vocal chords and changed your voice to sound just like the Walt Disney character. I thought this was hilarious. Janis never seemed to find much humor in it—can’t understand why.

Another observer calculated he could inflate three 1,000 gram balloons and jump off the roof of the barracks at Cuddy and float like Mary Poppins with her parasol. I think he miscalculated. I figured the three balloons had the lifting capacity of maybe half a pound.

Mary Poppins crashed.

One time the range officer was really ticked his pilots were missing the targets, and he blamed my PIBAL obs. He called me to the tower and reamed me out, told me I had five minutes to get him fresh winds, implied correct winds. That presented a problem. It would take me at least two minutes to get down from the tower and to our balloon shed, and that would be running. Then you have to fill the balloons at a certain rate, which was quite slow, and I have no idea why. We ignored that rule anyway. Tracking the balloon would take at least another eight minutes, and plotting the winds would take another five or so. That was well over my allotted five minutes. I had a choice: lie and make something up, or do it right? I took the high ground. I figured if he wanted my stripes because I did it right, I would be OK with my DETCO (Detachment Commander). I gave him fresh winds that indicated little change from the previous obs and never heard about it again.

On a side note, right after Cuddyback AGGR got their new electronic target scoring system that detected hits by the passage of the 20mm round within a set detection area, they had an issue with a fighter squadron commander back at George AFB. The CO was sorely disappointed with his pilots strafing scores and questioned the new equipment. He called and chewed out the Cuddyback crew then announced he was coming right up in his F-4 and would do strafing runs on the target to prove how screwed up the new system was.

The clever boys at Cuddyback, thus warned, cranked up the gain on the electronic scoring system. They had it high enough, if the 20mm round hit the dirt anywhere in southern California, it would score as a hit. The CO shot real well that day and called and apologized to the Cuddy crew when he got back to George. He then proceeded to ream out his pilots for their lousy shooting.

The Air Force could be a lot of fun!

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