Who ya gonna call? Weather Willie

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Hailey Staker
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
After a night of freezing drizzle, the quickly rising temperatures have created a thick fog that now blankets the airfield, reducing visibility and slowing all operations. 

Concerned for the safety of his aircrew, a squadron commander hits a hot key on his cell and asks the person on the other end a critical question: "Is it safe for my aircrews to takeoff?"

Answering that million dollar question - as he has done for 29 years - is Willie Martin, the lead forecaster and climatologist of the 28th Operations Support Squadron Weather Flight.

Willie is one of 13 people in the base weather shop who shoulder the responsibility of compiling up-to-the-minute weather information including temperatures, wind speeds, expected precipitation, and hazards, making sure it is provided without delay to the various agencies across the base.

"Forecasting weather here is not easy," Willie said. "We know what is going to come up the next day, but it's a challenge every day you come in. Just as you think you have it laid out, something comes along and says 'take that,' so it keeps it fun."

Each day, Willie and his team develop a mission execution forecast, or MEF, which not only assists Ellsworth pilots, but also helps the 15th Operational Weather Squadron in Scott Air Force Base, Ill., create a 30-hour general forecast for the Ellsworth area.

"We don't provide our own forecast; that is done at Scott AFB," Willie said. "The MEF is what we make, and it is a more detailed representation of that forecast, which we break up into three-hour blocks tailored .... to the mission."

Col. Gregory Payne, 28th Operations Group commander, understands the importance of the weather flight, having experienced a broad range of weather scenarios throughout his career. He said high wind speeds, icing, high or low ceilings and visibility impact flying substantially, can sometimes result in damaged aircraft if not forecasted properly.

"[There's a lot that they do and] it impacts flying more than people realize," Payne said. "It's not just here at Ellsworth - we fly B-1s all over the world and rely on other [aircraft] and bases, so we need to know the status of their airfield and [airspace]."

Situated east of the Black Hills and south of the Rocky Mountains, Ellsworth's neighbor - Rapid City - is said by several National Weather Service experts to have some of the most unpredictable weather in this part of the country, which, according to Willie, makes forecasting the weather much more difficult.

Willie, who hails from Salem, Ore., initially sought a career in plumbing or carpentry in the Air Force, expecting to only complete a six-year contract. Having always been curious about weather forecasting, he became an active duty forecaster and spent the first seven years of his career predicting the weather for the U.S. Army.

"I love my job," Willie said. "I get to work with great people and it's what I've been doing for the past 29 years."

Retiring as a master sergeant in 2009, Willie has served as the lead forecaster at Ellsworth since 2012.

He added that when forecasting in many places of the country, forecasters can analyze the weather systems from hundreds of miles away. Here, however, the Black Hills lie to the west and the Rockies upstream disrupt the whole program and make it more difficult to determine potential weather patterns.

"Just like having rocks in a stream, as long as there's nothing interrupting that flow of water, it's just going to keep going the same way," Willie said. "But, if we put rocks in that flow, it's going to cause eddies and bubbles in the whole stream, and the same thing happens in the atmosphere. When we put mountain ranges and valleys in, it's going to cause an obstruction."

With the unique placement of the base, Willie said once forecasters learn how the hills and valleys influence the weather, it becomes a little easier for them to predict what will happen over the next few days. However, knowing what the customer needs is a challenge any forecaster encounters.

"I would honestly say that the most challenging thing is perfectly fitting the customer's needs, sometimes before they even think about it," Willie added. "Security forces [doesn't] care how high the clouds are but they do care about the winds, temperatures, or any precipitation."

Payne added how he thought the weather flight impacted the 28th Bomb Wing mission by referencing the 2011 Libya air strikes, where Airmen from the wing launched B-1 bombers in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn during extreme weather conditions.

"Our mission is expeditionary combat power anywhere in the world and [while]... other people might say it, we live and breathe it," Payne said. "When we launched the Libya air strikes a couple years ago, it was less than 46 hours from notification to take-off, and you don't have the time and the ability to coordinate [weather] with other people ...  to do that in house [daily] and do it right so the pilots can employ their weapons is important."

However, the challenge Payne and Willie run into at times is weather forecasts changing even after it has been predicted for the next day.

"There is no perfect formula to it," Payne said. "That's why you need those professionals in there to look at the models [and] based on their experience, interpret [them to] help give you the right information."

Overall, Willie said he enjoys the fact that his job is never mundane and that his job is something he enjoys.

"The secret to life is to find something you love to do and find someone to pay you to do it," He said. "Then, you'll never work a day in your life."