Let me start with a story.
Two winters ago, while I still worked as an Air Force meteorologist, I got a call from a high-ranking fighter pilot. I didn’t know him, and he wasn’t part of any flying squadron that I worked for. He told me that he had flown into Lubbock, Texas, and needed to fly to a nearby Air Force base to resupply on oxygen before returning home to Mississippi. He explained to me that he had called two other nearby Air Force meteorology units (“shopping for weather”), but they did not provide him with a favorable enough weather forecast to depart Lubbock.
Familiar with his type of aircraft, I confirmed with him that of largest concern was low-level aircraft icing, which was forecasted over the entire Texas Panhandle at the time.
I replied, Well, sir, it does look pretty socked in over Lubbock, but let’s see what we can figure out to get you out of there.
I explained that a business jet had just landed at LBB a few minutes prior, reporting (PIREP) icing on final decent to validate the forecast. I knew that would keep him grounded for at least two hours. In the end, I still couldn’t get him the weather he needed to leave in the time frame he wanted, and he was forced to delay until the next day.
The next day, he sends an email to my superior officer thanking me for my efforts, blasting the other meteorology units for their inability to assist, and expressing a wish that there were more competent meteorologists in the world, like me.
The irony is that I didn’t get him off the ground any faster than anyone else, and my forecast was basically the same. So why was he angered with other forecasters, and praising me?
I took his side of the playing field and changed his “No” into a [let’s see if we can find a] “Go”.
Sure, the “Go” wasn’t as ideal as he would have liked, but I gave him the confidence that I would get him a wheels-up green-light as soon as possible, and gave him the impression that I was fighting for him, eager for favorable weather, just like he was. I confirmed the poor weather conditions not from my point of view, but by using a PIREP from a fellow experienced pilot, because most pilots often have this sort of confirmation bias. At the end of the day, in his mind, he knew I was invested in him, chomping at the bit to give him a “Go”, not a “No”.
You see – airplane pilots and meteorologists see weather a bit differently. Most meteorologists get excited about inclement weather. It’s fascinating, and it’s likely what perked our interest in meteorology to begin with. In college, we often did case studies on severe weather events. Not much time was spent on atmospheric diagrams of High Pressure. No weather forecaster really looks at endless, pristine, sunny days without getting a sense of boredom. The operational aviation weather forecaster largely exists to keep airplanes out of hazardous weather – so it’s our nature to look for and highlight the hazardous weather (i.e….the “No”), not the good weather (i.e….the “Go”). But really, the good weather is just as important as the bad weather.
Airplane pilots tend to enjoy smooth rides. They don’t want to be limited by weather. Most of the time, they don’t want delays, they want to get from one place to another as simply as possible, and often the only thing stopping that from getting that accomplished is…the weather.
At the end of the day, I’ve seen plenty of pilots completely disregard weather forecasts – even observed weather reports – and try their luck getting through it. Some would even have the audacity to try and PIREP good weather in obviously worse conditions, hoping that a favorable report from a fellow aviator would give other aviators the confidence to “risk it” (and they will!), or perhaps to justify the risk that they just took.
That’s when I learned that in all but the most severe weather cases, I needed to work with the pilot to find a “Go”, or they will simply take my “No”, toss it in the waste bucket, and find a “Go” themselves. One commercial airline pilot blatantly told me that weather forecasts are good for situational awareness, but that the company will send the airplane regardless of the weather, and if, at the last minute, the weather turns ugly, they’ll just divert. At the end of the day, as the weather expert, I’m going to be more confident about my weather “Go” forecast than a pilot’s or air traffic controller’s weather “Go” forecast.
An old boss of mine (also a fighter pilot) used to remind me that meteorologists work in the field of marketing, not production. While that’s true, the production takes a hit when the marketing isn’t working out. When the marketing says “No”, it puts the job of finding “Go” on the production team. If the production team has to find the “Go”, then what is the relevance of the marketing team? There is none. If I’m going to be part of marketing, I have to stay relevant by knowing exactly what the production side of the house needs.
So, how do aviation meteorologists take a “No” and make it a “Go”?
Understanding your customers – your pilots – is vital. I spent about 80% of my time as an aviation meteorologist in the Air Force talking with pilots, not other meteorologists. I learned exactly what my customers were looking for. I knew their impression of meteorologists, who they trusted and who they didn’t. I knew where they went for alternate weather advice and where to find it for myself. I knew their flying regulation, their limitations, and their available alternate airfields. I knew all of the aerodromes, the air traffic patterns, approaches, departures, and NAVAIDs, and what the next question was going to be out of their mouths when I gave them a forecast that might impact them.
But more important than knowing the aviators themselves is knowing how to find the exploitable weather window for them to operate in. That’s where aviation meteorologists make our money. We’ve all worked with the “doom and gloom” forecaster. This is the meteorologist that lacks confidence, and forecasts as if they were under the belief that if pilots never fly, they won’t run into bad weather, and therefore the forecaster won’t be held liable. Truly, now as a forensic meteorologist, I know first-hand that weather can be to blame for a lot of aviation mishaps, and no one wants to be that forecaster whose initials were on the weather briefing of the plane that went down. Finding exploitable windows, however, allows forecasters to communicate any weather threats (“No’s”), but also give an alternative (“Go’s”).
Here’s some examples of similar advice I’ve given in the past. Notice how each weather event presented is more than likely a “No”. Then, see how easy it is to take the side of your aviation customer and give a “Go”.
Look, you’ve got moderate to severe turbulence and a 130-knot headwind between MSP and DEN at FL340, but if you drop to FL280 and move your route slightly more northwesterly – say closer to RAP, you’ll only see about a 70-knot headwind and only occasional light to moderate chop as you get closer to the mountains.
I understand that your arrival time is 2345 local time. I must include Low Level Wind Shear (LLWS) in your briefing as it starts within an hour of your arrival – but I will make a note that the start time is midnight, and so long as you are wheels-down at your scheduled arrival time, you should not be impacted.
There’s a brief period of time between the IFR conditions you are trying to avoid and the convective weather moving in – about an hour or less. If you would like to depart, I suggest that time frame to avoid limiting weather and request the east departure to avoid the SIGMET just to our north and west.
Of course, sometimes the “Go” is just going to have to be delayed, as it was with my fighter pilot in Lubbock. The fact that I took interest in his flight, used data that he trusts (confirmation from another pilot), and still held my ground as a professional aviation meteorologist allowed him to feel like he had someone on his side, up at bat for him, that would drive him home as soon as the right pitch came.
Dan Schreiber is a seasoned operational meteorologist with expertise in aviation meteorology from years of experience in the US Air Force. He is the owner of Smalltown Weather, a forensic meteorology and severe weather emergency consulting agency in Del Rio, Texas.
Become a Weather Observer, Volunteer With CoCoRaHS! A Great Experience For Young Children & Senior Citizens AlikeRead Now
Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) is a non-profit weather observing network with thousands of volunteers across the United States, Canada, and The Bahamas. These volunteer weather observers take daily weather reports from their homes and businesses and submit them to the CoCoRaHS database, which is used to help meteorologists create forecasts, publish weather alerts to save lives and property, and assist in the diverse professional meteorology community.
The best part about it – it only takes a few minutes each day, you can do it from home, and the only requirement is to have enthusiasm about watching and reporting the weather, with a desire to learn.
What’s really cool is that CoCoRaHS is utilized in the United States by the National Weather Service and other professional meteorological agencies. If you record an inch of rain at your house and report it to CoCoRaHS via their online platform, the National Weather Service and other meteorologists will use it to assist in forecasting. If you report large hail, flooding, or other dangerous weather – your report will be documented and remain valuable for research, insurance claims, damage surveys, among other professional uses. Weekly condition monitoring reports are also submitted by hundreds to thousands of users to assist in drought monitoring.
Here’s the thing – it’s so easy to become a part of the program, my toddler daughter even does it with me. While I’m a professional meteorologist, it’s an absolute blast walking out each morning with my youngster who is still trying to learn her ABC’s to check the rain gauge. Through the routine, she learns the very basics about weather and its effects, about the responsibility of making accurate reports, about getting work done on time, and – very important – that Dad’s job is pretty cool.
So, how do you start?
It’s easy! Go to CoCoRaHS.org, then click “Join CoCoRaHS” on the left side of the webpage. Volunteering is absolutely free, but you will need to purchase a high-quality rain gauge of certain specifications before you can make rainfall reports to ensure that reports are standardized across the network using the same equipment. I’ve listed some websites below (price may or may not include shipping). There is also online training on the CoCoRaHS website, and a local coordinator will get in touch with you to assist in any questions you may have. That’s it!
It’s so easy, everyone should do it. Become an important part of CoCoRaHS today!
A severe thunderstorm early in the morning on October 9th, 2018 near Del Rio, Texas caused flooding wains, damaging winds, small hail, and even possibly a tornado. While most of Del Rio - especially the north side of town - did not catch the brunt end of the storm - neighborhoods on the east side of town and the Laughlin AFB area took a direct hit of the storm's fury.
Del Rio International Airport received 2.83 inches of rain from the storm - heavy, but not uncommon in severe storms. Laughlin AFB, however, less than 10 miles east of the Del Rio airport, received 5.25 inches from the same storm, causing widespread flooding and halting pilot training for the day due to excessive water on the runways and taxiways.
Additionally, small hail was reported across much of southern and eastern Del Rio as well as Laughlin AFB - mostly pea to marble size - and Laughlin AFB recorded a brief 72 mph wind gust (nearly hurricane force) while Del Rio Airport recorded only 40 mph.
The National Weather Service (NWS) did issue a severe thunderstorm warning for the storm, indicating damaging winds and large hail. A Flash Flood Watch was also valid during the time of the storm, accounting for the heavy rain.
As the storm crossed the border from Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, the NWS also promptly issued a Tornado Warning indicating that a tornado was imminent or already occurring.
This was likely due the "hook" shape of the storm, similar to the one seen in the image above. This hook shape is a result of strong rotation within the thunderstorm's updraft region and can lead to tornadic activity. Since tornadoes are often too small to be seen by weather radars, special indications from the hook on the weather radar will trigger meteorologists to disseminate a Tornado Warning.
While this storm did show weak signs of rotation as it crossed the border, a much more robust, defined hook presented as the storm positioned itself just east of Laughlin AFB on the Kinney County side of Sycamore Creek that would certainly raise the eyebrows of any meteorologist (the image above).
So, was there a tornado? None confirmed. In order to confirm a tornado, it must be either observed or damage or path carved by the tornado must be observed. Since no definitive path or damage has been reported that could be attributed to tornadic activity, no tornado can be confirmed.
It's unlikely that anywhere within Val Verde County - including Del Rio or Laughlin AFB - experienced a tornado due to somewhat weak rotation of the storm overhead. Just east, however, a much more significant rotational signature was noted along the western reaches of Kinney County near Sycamore Creek and extending to just south of the Foyt Ranch along the Highway 90. If a tornado did occur, it would have most likely been within this region.
For a loop of the entire storm from Del Rio to near Brackettville, see the below video.
In the military, there’s the dream duty locations – Hawaii, Europe, Florida, and so on, depending on what your taste is. And, there are the locations that most try to avoid – and Laughlin AFB in Del Rio, Texas is one of those.
It’s been said many times by military folks here, Laughlin is the Air Force’s best force-shaping tool. In layman’s terms, “force-shaping” is synonymous with “trim the fat” or “to weed out”. In other words, the statement is really suggesting that the Air Force powers-that-be, in an effort to discharge the folks it doesn’t want anymore, simply would threaten to relocate them to Del Rio in hopes that they would leave the Air Force voluntarily. True or not, I’ve seen many families chose to leave the Air Force instead of relocate to Del Rio.
Who did you piss off? That was what one coworker (who had never been to Del Rio personally) asked when he heard that’s where I was headed before my family arrived over three years ago, implying that perhaps I drew the short stick in the bureaucratic game of duty location assignments – and that the Air Force was simply trying to weed me out. While Laughlin AFB doesn’t have the most glamorous mission of undergraduate flight training while other military bases actively train for warfighting, the surrounding community of Del Rio is what would make or break the deal for me. Assignment accepted.
After three years in Del Rio, the Air Force certainly did weed me and my family out, voluntarily. Not to avoid Del Rio, but instead rather to embrace the town further. We were ready to leave the military, but not Del Rio.
Most military people looked at me sideways when they heard the news of my family staying put in Del Rio after I exited the military. While the vast majority of the exiting force counts the days til they see this part of Texas in the rear-view mirror en-route to larger cities, higher-paying jobs, and cooler weather, they can’t seem to understand why we would stay.
If you’ve ever relocated a few times in your life, you know as well as I do that the people make or break the location, not the other way around. Of all the places I’ve lived, Del Rio – by a long shot – is home to the friendliest people. Texas, by-and-large, is home to nice people, especially in the more rural areas.
Growing up on the West Coast, people aren’t friendly. It’s not uncommon to simply feel like you are just in their way - an inconvenience - and sucked into the rat-race of keeping-up-with-the-Jones’. In Del Rio, no one cares if you drive a $70K SUV (although you might not fit in…) or an old clunker that is one lug nut from not passing inspection this year. You can own a $300K home, or rent a $600 apartment, and your kids can attend the same school. And, vastly different from the beaches of Southern California, you can strike up a conversation with a total stranger – anywhere – they’ll tell you they’re life story, simply for the sake of having a neighborly conversation. Folks are genuine, here.
In Del Rio, I’ve had total strangers at the downtown creek-side park invite me to their barbecues. No hidden agenda, just hospitality. When my daughter was born, every lady in H-E-B (local grocery store) found their way to the aisle I was on to meet her. On her first birthday party, our house was so full we had to move most of it outside with the sprinklers on (it was hot). Her second one we held at the church, a smashing hit. Not because she is all-that (she thinks she is, like all two-year-olds), but because Del Rio is a family where a sense of community is important. If you embrace it, it will embrace you.
Dirty, dusty border town? Sure, it is somewhat of a desert climate – hot and relatively dry – but the area does have its green season most years with plenty of rainfall. It also gets a mild winter from time to time – but rarely snow.
Unlike many desert locations, however, the area also has numerous rivers, Lake Amistad, and Hill Country all within an hour’s drive. Sunrises and sunsets are beautiful, and wide-open spaces are plentiful and filled with wildlife. It’s common to see deer in your front yard in town, and just out of town you can find aoudad (big-horn sheep), numerous types of deer, birds, hogs, varmints, and mountain lions.
Lake Amistad is one of the clearest lakes in Texas and straddles the international border with unlimited gorgeous desert scenery and great fishing and boating. The Devils River is also a paradise with ultra-pure waters. The Pecos River and Rio Grande both make big cuts into the desert plateau and are frequented by kayakers. Many locals float down portions of the Rio, as well as other local Hill Country rivers like the Nueces, Sabinal, and Frio Rivers.
Del Rio is one of the safest cities in Texas. With a crime rate of about half of the national-average according to City-Data.com, Del Rio is an extremely secure town. For a population of about 35,000 residents, law enforcement departments include Del Rio Police Department, San Felipe-Del Rio School District Police Department, Val Verde County Sheriff’s Department, Val Verde County Constable, U.S. Border Patrol and Customs, Texas Highway Patrol, Texas Game Warden, U.S. Park Rangers, FBI, DEA, and U.S. Marshalls. There might be a few I missed, but the point is that criminal activity is highly discouraged due to the shear number of law enforcement officials scattered throughout the town.
I never worry about my wife and daughter out and about anytime during the day or night – crime is so rare, especially violent crime. Even Acuña – Del Rio’s sister-city across the border – is frequented by Del Rioans daily with few problems.
The Cost of Living
Cheap! While the housing rental market is rather inflated due to Laughlin AFB, the rest of the town remains very affordable. Even if you want to buy a house, it’s rather inexpensive, although property taxes and utilities are slightly high in Texas compared to some other states. However, like much of West Texas, you don’t need a high-paying job to live comfortably.
While high-paying jobs outside of federal employment are hard to find, the cost of living allows modest salaries to meet the needs of most families. Some say that it’s only inexpensive because they’re nothing to spend your money on – but that’s far from the truth. My wife and daughter stay busy every day in the community enjoying free – or very inexpensive – entertainment and activities.
While Del Rio doesn’t have a wide variety of shopping choices, prices are low. Movie tickets are between $4-6 a pop. The Whitehead Museum, Del Rio Community Garden, Civic Center, Del Rio Chamber of Commerce, The Dr. Alfredo Gutierrez Amphitheater, the Lake Amistad Recreation Area routinely hold free events. The Paul Poag Theatre also holds regular musicals and other shows at reasonable prices.
Too many people never see Del Rio – they give up the opportunity before they even arrive. Others do relocate with the military or federal service, reluctantly, but come close-minded and ignorant. They stay holed up on on base at Laughlin AFB or in their house in the north part of the city and Del Rio doesn’t even get a fair shot. If my wife and I came to Del Rio with the preconceived notion that we would hate it (like many do), then I probably wouldn’t be writing this right now. But, like the story of a Game Warden’s wife I once met here in Del Rio – she came here kicking and screaming, and left here in tears.
I’ve found that the culture in Del Rio is accepting of newcomers. Not newcomers that want to make Del Rio a big city, but newcomers that want to contribute to the community – those who take pride in their new city and its culture. Many Del Rioans want to see the city grow through new ideas and opportunities. They welcome – with open arms – families that want to help make a positive impact on the community. Because of this, there are an unlimited number of opportunities for community involvement that will help you and your family in transforming this duty location in a home.
We gave it a shot, embraced it, and in turn it embraced us.
130 passengers on American Airlines Flight 1897 from San Antonio to Phoenix on Sunday (June 3rd) had a scary ride as their aircraft slammed head-on into a hail storm at 34,000 feet over South-Central New Mexico. Ultimately, this aircraft decided to make an emergency landing in El Paso - apparently using on-board instrumentation and a cockpit side-window to land since the windshield was shattered by golf-ball to tennis-ball size hail.
A wide swath of thunderstorms - including severe weather - was occurring through West Texas and New Mexico through the afternoon and evening. The normal jet route would take the Airbus A319 airliner along the same route as the Interstate 10 through West Texas - but due to weather, it appears Air Traffic Control routed traffic above just west of Odessa, Texas to Carlsbad, New Mexico, to near Capitan, New Mexico. That's where the real trouble began.
Attempting to avoid the strongest storms, the flight was routed over the Sierra Blanca mountain range north of Ruidoso, New Mexico, where - at first look on the radar - appears to show a decent break in the weather. A slight blip of rainfall on the above image is shown just ahead of the nose of the aircraft, but does not appear to be of much significance. Weather radar on-board the Airbus has not been released, but may have likely showed a different story. Here's what I found when I did some digging...
As you can see, significant weather radar reflectivity is noted in at the same place as the first image - why the difference? This is because the first image (top-down look) showed "Base Reflectivity" - the scan of the radar at the lowest level. The cross-section image shows the entire storm, and is likely to show a bit more of what the on-board weather radar would have shown, although it is possible that the frequency may have been attenuated (degraded by heavy precipitation) at some point - or the angle at which the airplane radar was broadcasted did not solicit correct feedback returns.
From the looks of things based on the top-down view and base-reflectivity imagery, this route appears to be the best way around a long line of storms. However - the atmospheric cross-section above proved that this was one of the worst places to cross.
Unfortunatly, this part of New Mexico is plagued by some radar dead-spots. It's rural, and the nearest radar (Alamogordo) sits on the west side of a mountain while this aircraft was approaching from the east - and the weather was on this east side of the mountain - making it a bit more difficult to "see".
The next nearest radar on the east side of the mountain (Clovis, New Mexico) is about 120 miles from the site of the incident. This is much further away than the Alamogordo radar (only 45 miles away), but due to terrain and the radar scan tilt at that distance, it actually captured a better view of the storm. This base-reflectivity, top-down radar image (above) shows a different story.
Why did Air Traffic route this aircraft into a hail storm? How come the pilots didn't "see" this weather and avoid it? The investigation will likely tell on this one, but it certainly wouldn't have been my advice. Fortunately, a miraculous landing in El Paso with little visibility out of a shattered windshield concluded this flight - nothing less than expert piloting figuring that one out.