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By Senior Airman Patrick Sullivan
“We’re with a light infantry airborne unit here, we jump when they jump,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Derek Bolton, a staff weather officer on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. “We’ve jumped out at -23, and by the afternoon it hit -42. This place will kill you quick if you're not ready.”
With weather conditions ranging from unpredictable to outright hostile, the vast and varied environments of Alaska require a specialized team to ensure the safety and effectiveness of service members operating within them.
The Airmen of Detachment 3, 1st Combat Weather Squadron, known as staff weather officers, provide this support to JBER. The team is attached to the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 11th Airborne Division – the only airborne brigade combat team in the Pacific Theater.
The primary duty of SWOs is to provide forward atmospheric observation and tailored exploitation capabilities to ground-force commanders and aviation assets, both within the brigade and in support of other airborne operations on the installation.
Wind speeds, visibility, turbulence, and cloud ceilings are just a few of the ever-changing factors that can make or break airborne operations, which require more precise and immediate information than forecasts alone can provide. The ability to accurately assess and forecast these conditions to commanders, allowing for informed tactical decision making, is critical for mission success.
These Airmen mobilize with JBER’s airborne units, jumping alongside the paratroopers they will be supporting. This allows them to provide counsel based on the real-world observations at the front lines.
“The whole reason we jump is so we can be there to relay information directly face-to-face to commanders, while being on the ground observing,” explained Bolton. “It gets hard to forecast for a place when you have no idea what it actually looks like. You can look at maps and look at models, but nothing is like actually being there.”
In order to provide this specialized support, combat weather Airmen attend the Army Weather Support Course, which gives them the skills necessary to embed with Army combat units. Further training is dependent on the type of unit the Airmen will be supporting.
Detachment 3’s team in particular requires a specific skill set to embed with in-the-field operations, both due to the airborne mission and the hazardous conditions found in Alaska. Members of the team have attended the Basic Airborne course, Arctic Survival School, the Cold Weather Leaders Course, and Jumpmaster School.
Only a small number of SWOs throughout the Air Force receive jump qualifications, and even fewer become jumpmasters, making the Airmen of Detachment 3 some of the most specialized in the field.
To ensure the success and safety of the mission, the SWOs often perform duties above and beyond the job description. Their jumpmaster qualifications allow them to better integrate with the airborne brigade, and they can also perform advance reconnaissance of remote drop zones.
For a recent remote airborne operation, the team flew out to survey the surrounding ridgelines, environmental hazards in the drop zone, and water levels of a creek running through the area.
”Our work is very Alaska-specific, it’s just a completely different environment,” said Bolton. “We are pushing the boundary of what we can bring to the table, because this is the Wild West out here.”