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Eye on the Sky: Weather ops helps keep Rucker flying

Cindy Howell, lead meteorological technician for Fort Rucker Weather Operations, looks over the weather radar at Cairns Army Airfield March 10. (Photo by Nathan Pfau)

Cindy Howell, lead meteorological technician for Fort Rucker Weather Operations, looks over the weather radar at Cairns Army Airfield March 10. (Photo by Nathan Pfau)

Published: March 14, 2014

FORT RUCKER, Ala. (March 14, 2014) -- Fort Rucker’s skies are filled with helicopters and the familiar sound of rotor blades chopping through the air, but those birds would be in trouble if it weren’t for an integral part of Army Aviation – weather operations.

Cindy Howell, lead meteorological technician for Fort Rucker Weather Operations, is an important link in the chain that allows the installation to train the Army’s best Aviators and makes sure that they have the most up-to-the-minute information as they go Above the Best.

“We do a little bit of everything here,” she said. “We do the forecasts for all of the flight training and we put out three products a day.”

The products put out by weather operations are put out at 5 a.m., 10:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., and are mission execution forecasts and DD175-1, which go over takeoff weather from Cairns; the flight-level winds and temperatures; and hazards, like thunderstorms, turbulence or icing – anything that the pilots might expect.

On a busy weather day, Howell said the radios are alive with chatter, Aviators come in and out of the offices for updates and weather personnel are glued to the radar screen to put out up-to-the-minute weather observations.

“What we do is absolutely critical for Army Aviation,” she said. “These pilots would not be flying without our forecast and we’ve got a really experienced staff here, which helps a lot. It’s during times like thunderstorms or severe weather that you can really feel like you make a difference.”

During those days, Howell said she finds herself out of her office and on the floor working with her team to push information to not only Aviators, but other airfields, stage fields and heliports on Fort Rucker.

“On those days, you just come in, throw your stuff down and you get right to work,” she said. “Maybe you’ll get a lunch break, maybe not, but we’ve got a large area to look over and we’ve got a big job to do.”

The area that Fort Rucker Weather Operations oversees is a 150-mile radius that stretches from Tuscaloosa to the Florida Panhandle, so there’s always something to be on the lookout for, said the meteorologist.

One of the biggest challenges that weather operations faced recently was the unfamiliar freezing weather that gripped the South during the past few months.

“During the ice storm, there were a couple challenges – one of which was timing,” she said. “The models were fairly consistent in terms of what was coming and the temperatures we would experience, but one or two degrees of temperature is the difference between freezing rain, rain or snow during those conditions.”

Normally, putting out a prediction that is within the range of a couple of degrees is fine, said Howell, but when talking about freezing temperatures, those couple of degrees are critical.

“It was all about trying to find the balance,” she said. “Trying to figure out when the freezing rain was going to start was particularly challenging,” because Aviators were depending on those predictions to determine whether they were able to fly that day.

“These (Aviators) have a job to do, so we want to be able to mitigate the risk and maximize their training time,” said Howell. “If our forecast is completely botched, that affects them, so we do what we can to make sure we get it right. Predicting the weather is not an easy thing to do – it’s definitely an art.”

It’s an art that Howell said she was interested in as long as she can remember growing up around Coffee Springs, Ala. She’s unsure when the interest hit her, but said it was something that had always piqued her interest because of its power and unpredictability.

“As a child, when The Weather Channel first came out, I found myself watching it for hours,” she said. “It just always captivated me – the science of it was just fascinating.”

After graduating from Coffee Springs High School, Howell studied physics and mathematics at Troy University, and earned her degree in mathematics. As an active member of the U.S. Air Force ROTC program, she was commissioned to active duty upon graduating and served six years of military service.

After graduation, she attended the Air Force Institute of Technology where she earned her master’s degree in meteorology. Her assignments took her as far west as Tucson, Ariz., and as much as she loved her assignments out west, she longed to return home to her Family.

“I just kept getting farther and farther away from home and I just wanted to be back with my Family, so when my commitment was up, I found out these jobs would be opening up (on Fort Rucker) and the timing was perfect,” said Howell.

When not working, the lead meteorologist enjoys exercising as a way to not only pass time, but also connect with Family.

“I work out a lot and I just love to exercise,” she said. “Right now, I’m training for a half marathon, something that my sister got me into. She’s a big runner and has run several half marathons, so I thought to myself, ‘Why not?’”

Howell runs four days a week – one short day, two medium days and one long day to work up to the 13.1 mile half marathon she will be participating in April.

Regardless of whether she’s running toward the finish line of a half marathon or trying to push out the most accurate weather information for Fort Rucker’s finest, she makes sure to make the most of each day and make an impact on those she encounters throughout life.

“I just try to approach every situation with kindness to try and make a difference,” she said. ”I treat people how I would like to be treated – with kindness and understanding — at work and at home.”

This article was originally published at http://www.army.mil/article/121892/

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