NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. - “You can’t take me anywhere,” jokes U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ashley Weatherly, Red Flag 17-1weather forecaster from the 1st Operational Support Squadron at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, as a pilot passes by her weather operations desk shaking his head after hearing his and several other flights were cancelled due to thunderstorms and snow.
Weatherly, one of two Red Flag 17-1 weather forecasters, knows this isn’t what flyers want to hear, but their safety depends on weather calls determined by forecasts she prepares. Along with forecasts, Weatherly and her 1st OSS counterpart, U.S. Air Force Senior Airman William James are responsible for tracking, researching and briefing weather conditions for the multi-contingent joint and coalition force exercise at Nellis AFB, Nevada.
While most of Red Flag involves scenario based training interjections that test combat skills and capabilities, the training’s weather forecasters deal with real-world injects brought on by mother nature that determine the safety and course of exercise missions.
“For the Air Force to do the things we do, weather is an important factor,” said Gregory Weart, Red Flag deputy director of operations. “Weather is an even bigger deal (during) Red Flag because, not only do we need to safely execute the exercise, we need to bring everyone home safely.”
According to Weart, determining weather safety is an integral part of deconflicting airspace as the combat exercise can involve approximately 40 different (aircraft) flying around the same airspace at any time. To divide that airspace and avoid collisions, flight areas are divided into layers allowing pilots to fly safely at different blocks of altitude.
With airspace divided between joint, partner and aggressor-training forces, the weather operations desk is visited nearly every minute prior to flights. Sometimes people have questions about overall weather and sometimes it’s about particular mission set forecasts. Either way, the forecasters are ready to handle it all.
“I start my day at 6 a.m., and it’s non-stop and constantly changing,” said Weatherly. “With the weather changes, we consistently have people coming in to check their flight stats. It’s one thing after another so you really just have to be able adapt to answer any questions.”
A Red Flag veteran, Weatherly works like a machine that seamlessly transitions from fielding a phone call about tomorrow’s flights, to answering questions about the day’s cancelled missions all while preparing mass and mission-centric forecast briefings to aircrews participating in the exercise.
“It can be so easy to lose your spot or lose track of what you’re doing in this job,” said Weatherly. “But, as you progress in your career, your confidence improves. Red Flag was a big part of that for me. I went to my first one in 2002. I must have briefed a hundred people at a time during that exercise and that made me feel like I could do anything.”
For Weart, that confidence is essential in this exercise and weather is an integral piece of ensuring safety throughout the three-week training.
“We’ve developed processes over the years to ensure the greatest amount of safety for our participants,” said Weart. “Because of that, having a total picture of what to anticipate and expect is a huge part of executing the missions without mishaps.”
With cancelled flights on the first day of training due to weather, Weatherly knows her and her wingman have their work cut out. However, they are more than ready to handle it as their job directs the safety of others.