Unpredictable weather

Waites: Weather Flight work at Minot AFB is challenging

Submitted Photo Airman Connor McDonald, 5th Operations Support Squadron weather forecaster, monitors the weather conditions via satellite at Minot Air Force Base, April 18, shown in this photo by Airman 1st Class Dillon Audit. The 5th OSS weather forecasters create and tailor data to flying and ground assets.

MINOT AIR FORCE BASE – North Dakota’s unpredictable, ever changing weather is a major test for those working in the weather forecasting field.

“It’s definitely challenging,” said Capt. Jenna Waites, a meteorologist who is commander of the Weather Flight at Minot Air Force Base.

Waites cited a study that attempted to pinpoint regions of the country with the most unpredictable weather. “The bull’s eye target for that is actually south of us in South Dakota – the Ellsworth (AFB) area – Rapid City. They have it worse than we do but we’re on that end of the spectrum,” she said. “It’s hard to go to another place that has more unpredictable weather than North Dakota and South Dakota and the eastern edge of Montana as well. They fall into that scope.”

Although the northern tier region is a good place to see the Northern Lights, that bright light display seen at times in the sky, it’s also a place for ever changing weather.

“We get everything from blizzards to hail,” Waites said.

Submitted Photo Airman 1st Class Errol Petgrave, 5th Operations Support Squadron weather forecaster, inspects the Deployed Tactical Meteorological Observing System for damage at Minot Air Force Base, April 18, shown in this photo by Airman 1st Class Dillon J. Audit. Petgrave is checking the statistics and the raw data from the TMQ-53, which afterwards sends the data to their computer.

Originally from Springfield, Mo., Waites has been at the Minot base for about two years. She is a meteorologist qualified per the World Meteorological organization standard.

She has seen plenty of snow during her military career here in North Dakota and also while she was in Alaska. “But we never had blizzards (in Alaska), we never had the winds with the snow and the ice – none of that ever happened at the same time. They sure didn’t get tornados in Alaska,” she said.

“We get a little bit of everything here,” she said, noting there’s even flooding. Minus earthquakes and hurricanes, she said Minot basically gets all types of weather.

Lt. Col. Jamie Humphries, chief of Public Affairs at Minot Air Force Base, recalls earlier this year when a blizzard hit the area quite unexpectedly. “I was on (Highway) 83 and I couldn’t see 5 feet from me,” he said. He also activated his vehicle’s hazard lights and hoped other drivers could see his vehicle so he would not get hit. He and others were stalled on the highway by the blizzard and could not move their vehicles for about two hours. “That was the worst I’ve ever seen as far as snow,” he said.

Weather challenges always exist for the base Weather Flight people.

“I think what makes it challenging is we do have a huge capacity for severe weather here both in the summertime and in the wintertime,” Waites said.

She said at the past weather units where she has worked the areas had a severe weather season. “Typically it’s in the summer so it’s from like March to August or in hurricane season from August to December but here’s it’s always. It’s either a blizzard or damaging winds or severe thunderstorms. There’s not a time of year that is not severe weather season.

“We’re consistently having to make that determination – is this going to be a severe event? Is this going to be a severe snow event, is it going to be a severe wind event, is this going to be a severe thunderstorm event? That’s what keeps us on our toes,” she said.

The number of people assigned to the Weather Flight at Minot AFB is not based on the base’s severe weather challenges. “It’s purely based on the missions that we support,” Waites said.

“We are a large Weather Flight here,” she said. “We’ve got 16 total people in the shop.” She said they support the two wings – the 5th Bomb Wing and the 91st Missile Wing.

“There’s days when the bombers don’t fly. There’s never a day where the missileers don’t go out on alert,” she said. The Weather Flight gives a weather briefing before the aircrews fly and before missile people go out in the missile field.

The Weather Flight people also work along with the National Weather Service in Bismarck consulting with each other about various weather information. “We are definitely professional partners,” she said.

Their official duty hours are 24/5, Monday through Friday, but Weather Flight is on standby on weekends.

“There’s rarely a weekend when standby doesn’t get physically called into the shop for something whether it’s to issue a warning or the bombers are flying or there’s a special missile wing mission so it’s an incredibly active standby,” Waites said.

(Prairie Profile is a weekly feature profiling interesting people in our region. We welcome suggestions from our readers. Call Editor Mike Sasser at 857-1959 or Regional Editor Eloise Ogden at 857-1944. Either can be reached at 1-800-735-3229. You also can send e-mail suggestions to msasser@minotdailynews.com.)