Hercules aircraft

It's all in the detail

28 February 2011

For RAF flight crews, adverse weather is not just an inconvenience - it can directly affect their ability to do their jobs, which is why having a Met Office forecaster based in their planning room is proving an invaluable resource.

The Met Office has always worked closely with its defence customers, but this year has seen the launch of a trial service - one that places its forecasters in the actual planning and operation rooms on military bases throughout the UK.

Joanna Pitt (pictured below) is one of the Met Office's new 'integrated forecasters' based at RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire. Lyneham is home to the UK's fleet of Hercules, an aircraft used mainly to transport supplies, personnel and freight, as well as for reconnaissance missions. Most of the flights Jo helps plan are for training purposes, and involve weather-sensitive exercises such as air-to-air refuelling or low-level flying. "Since being based here, I've gained first-hand insight and become far more knowledgeable about the sort of weather information the crews need for different missions. I make sure the conditions are within certain parameters and help them gain valuable flight time."

Joanna Pitt, Met Office Forecaster at RAF Lyneham, at her desk

Joanna Pitt, Met Office Forecaster at RAF Lyneham

Jo begins her day picking up a general weather report from the main forecast office on the base and then heads down to the planning room to compare the forecast with the day's flight training programme. There are usually nine or ten training flights leaving the airfield in any one day. Each of the aircrews will spend up to two and a half hours in the planning room assessing their route and mission, with Jo on hand to make sure conditions are suitable for the duration and purpose of their flight.

Accuracy matters

A typical exercise may last for up to three hours and could involve, for example, a supplies drop over Salisbury Plain, anywhere from 250 ft up to 12,000 ft above a designated drop zone. Jo will need to let them know the exact wind speed, changes in wind direction or turbulence, all of which will affect the safety of the drop - especially from higher altitudes. After completing the drop, the aircrew may carry out a low-level flying exercise at around 250 ft along the south coast of Wales, where cloud cover and visibility becomes more of an issue.

"While a public weather forecaster needs to be broader in scope, I have to narrow down exactly where, for example, cloud will be, and see whether they can fly beneath or around it. I'll even help them plot an alternative route if necessary."

Joanna Pitt, Met Office forecaster at RAF Lyneham

"While a public weather forecaster needs to be broader in scope, I have to narrow down exactly where, for example, cloud will be, and see whether they can fly beneath or around it. I'll even help them plot an alternative route if necessary." This degree of accuracy and tailored forecasting has been a big asset to the air squadrons. In the past, the pilots would err on the side of caution if the weather conditions looked marginal. Now, with a dedicated forecaster providing up to date specific weather reports, they are more likely to fly in conditions previously deemed unsuitable and gain essential training time.

"The squadron here make us feel that we have a valuable role to play and are really part of their team. In fact, they have said they couldn't see themselves not having the Met Office forecaster here now."

A natural partnership

Supporting the Armed Forces on their day-to-day training activities in the UK is just part of the service the Met Office provides its defence customers. It also works closely with the UK military and its allies on bases around the world.

Human resources

From Cyprus to the Falkland Islands, Met Office forecasters advise the Armed Forces on the impact weather and other environmental factors may have on their operations - both for training exercises and on active service.

When troops are deployed to the frontline, they need to make quick and accurate decisions, often in hostile conditions, which is why the Met Office established an RAF-sponsored reserve unit called the Mobile Meteorological Unit (MMU).

The MMU is made up of around 70 specially trained forecasters that have undergone military training to get to grips with the challenges faced on the frontline. They can be called upon at any time to work alongside troops in areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Technical support

As well as having forecasters based across the globe, the Met Office also works closely with the Ministry of Defence to identify how its science and technology can best be applied to further support military decision making. This includes everything from predicting how environmental conditions will affect military sensors to advising strategic planners on the impacts of climate change on future defence requirements.

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