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Navy's weathermen celebrate 90 years

Jul. 27, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
'Broadside' cartoonist Jeff Bacon, a retired Navy oceanographer, often makes light of how the brass respond to their forecasters.
'Broadside' cartoonist Jeff Bacon, a retired Navy oceanographer, often makes light of how the brass respond to their forecasters. ()
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They have been knocked down from ship’s company to ship riders.

They have lost their favorite duty station and are often tagged as “weather guessers.”

But were it not for aerographer’s mates, chances are you would end up riding rough seas and flying unfriendly skies.

This unsung rating celebrates 90 years of weather forecasting this month. Chief Quartermaster John Dungan became the first aerographer in 1924, and he was joined by seven other sailors the following year, aviation pioneers who manned surface weather stations connected by telegraph.

Today, the field has about 1,000 sailors worldwide who conduct meteorology, oceanographic and hydrographic assessments. Some of their gear is time-tested, such as weather balloons. Other gear is on the cutting edge — target-acquisition weather software used in strike warfare, advanced refractive environmental prediction systems and a variety of remotely operated vehicles and systems used down to six miles underwater.

The massive data dump is fed to supercomputers that provide battle-space models with an accuracy that would make your local weatherman drool.

Still, the significant strides technology has made take a backseat to the trained aerographer who analyzes, interprets and communicates the data, said Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet, who heads Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command.

“It’s AGs who provide the Navy with home-field advantage at the away games,” he said. “I’ve seen their precisely timed weather forecasts prevent aircraft damage and strike mission failure in [operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom], their accurate hydrographic surveys and tide predictions ensure success in Navy SEAL missions worldwide — two have been awarded Bronze Stars for this kind of work — and their skilled oceanographic assessments and predictions assist our anti-submarine and mine-warfare forces in locating and tracking potential undersea threats.

“I like to call them the Bruce Lee of the Navy: lean but agile, punching way above their weight.”

Aerographer’s Mate 1st Class (IDW/AW/SW) Stephanie Jenkins packed such a punch three years ago while serving as the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group’s forecaster. She provided weather forecasts that covered long flights to Afghanistan and back.

In one instance, she warned pilots of an impending ice storm, and they heeded her early launch recommendation. The squadrons completed a critical mission, and prevented a cold and lengthy layover in Afghanistan, she recalled.

Knowing the fleet's limits

Aerographers may be few and far between, but their insights are crucial to Navy missions. There is nothing that happens in the fleet that is not subject to the whims of the weather, AGs proudly point out, from flight ops to launching small boats to transits and amphibious operations.

It’s all part of the job, according to AG2 Laura Hughes, who is assigned to the Fleet Weather Center in Norfolk, Virginia.

Aerographers must know the limits of every ship, plane and craft in the inventory. A database called “the ladder” provides operating thresholds for everything from small boats to aircraft carriers, she said. When conditions outstrip those limits, forecasters alert a ship routing officer who then redirects ships in the storm’s path.

But aerographers know that their forecasts are only half the battle.

“It is one thing to understand the weather,” Chief Aerographer’s Mate (IDW/AW/SW) Dean Tunberg said. “But it is entirely another thing to convey that message; to tell a unit commander how the weather is going to impact an operation.”

This is made more difficult by the Navy’s 2008 decision to remove aerographers from ships, said Tunberg.

“Now when you come onto the ship, you are considered a ship rider,” he said. “You have to get past that stigma and earn their respect and trust to the point that they listen to you. If they don’t trust you, they are going to disregard your message.”

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