By Paul Shirk, 55th Wing Public Affairs
/ Published September 17, 2018
Master Sgt. Brandon Healy, 1st Weather Group (WXG) superintendent of systems and training, monitors the progress of Hurricane Florence on the 26th Operational Weather Squadron’s (OWS) webpage September 14, 2018 at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. Healy managed the implementation of 1st WXG’s OWS webpages. (U.S. Air Force photo by Paul Shirk)
Innovation is more important than ever. The 2018 National Defense Strategy has called for rapid innovation and to “deliver performance at the speed of relevance.”
557th Weather Wing Airmen have a history of finding ways to innovate, working smarter to save money and deliver new capabilities and their efforts are benefiting the Air Force Weather community and the Air Force at large.
When the Air Force Weather Agency became the 557th WW in 2015, the six operational weather squadrons that forecast regional weather all over the globe were all brought under the new wing and the 1st Weather Group. Unfortunately, the squadrons had varying capabilities at the time and while their systems all provided customer-facing websites, each used a different design.
This meant that if an aircraft needed to fly a mission across two or more regions, the pilot might have to visit multiple OWS websites to pull the weather information they needed.
However, the problem really began in 2013. Scheduled updates for the system used to produce weather forecasts were canceled due to budget cuts. This left the forecasters without features needed to conduct meteorological monitoring and forecast performance evaluation.
Going forward as a wing, the OWSs needed the tools and ability to think and act globally but still be able to provide the regional services they were already known for.
“We required web services that were agile and capable of supporting that global mission,” said Jeffrey Fries, chief of standards and tactics for 1st WXG.
The Airmen stepped up to the challenge. In October 2014, they began working on the missing tools and capabilities on their own.
There was a catch; for budget and procedural reasons, they weren’t allowed to purchase anything new. For security reasons, they couldn’t reuse old code or use code that came from outside the system.
The Terminal Aerodrome Forecast Manager – known as the TAF Manager – was born.
“TAF Manager was the brainchild of motivated Airmen in our squadrons’ operations and systems elements that was years ahead of its time,” Fries said. “It sorts through the sensor data and matches current conditions with the airfield forecast, notifying the operations team so they can take proactive steps.”
The application was popular. Forecasters from the OWSs who were later assigned to weather flights at bases around the world would often call to request access to the TAF Manager they had previously worked with. The program was then added to the OWS websites.
Completed in 2014 and continuously improved since then, the in-house updates allow forecasters to spend more time forecasting and less time crunching numbers, placing an estimated 70,000 man hours per year back into the forecasting process that would have otherwise been spent sorting through data – that’s more than 33 man years.
“Time is the resource,” Fries said. “Anything we can do that returns time to the forecaster improves the quality of the final product.”
Designing the missing tools in-house instead of purchasing them from outside channels is estimated to have saved between $4.5 – 6 million. The value of these savings is multiplied by the fact that the OWSs produce nearly 900,000 forecasts each year.
In May 2016, the 1st WXG took on the next challenge by unifying the OWS systems.
“The older webpages were designed in another era,” Fries said. “They were extremely vulnerable from a network security point of view.”
Linking the OWSs together set the standards that all of them would work under. This included unifying the look of their websites to improve the user experience. The work was completed in June 2017, but improvements to the system continues.
“Bringing the other squadrons into the mix allowed us to increase our operational capacity,” Fries said. “We needed the ability to back each other up.”
Their work paid off. When Hurricane Lane headed toward Hawaii in August 2018, the 17th OWS at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, knew they would be affected.
“We totally shut down the 17th OWS for Hurricane Lane,” Fries said. “I don’t believe they would have been able to do that even two or three years ago. They were able to shelter all their personnel, empty out their operations floor and farm out their work to their sister squadrons.”
Going forward, 1st WXG has improved how future changes to the websites are tested and put into use. Once new changes are scanned for vulnerabilities and then approved by the Air Force Lifecycle Management Center, they can be rolled out to the squadrons within 24 hours.
“The rapid software fielding process developed by Master Sgt. Brandon Healy and the AFLCMC should be a benchmark for future Air Force operations,” said Fries. “This development to operations approach brings new capabilities to the fight and brings the entire program management team closer to the end users of these systems. It opens the door for rapid prototyping before generating requirements, as stated in the NDS and by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force.”
The innovations built by the 1st WXG Airmen were a direct result of their openness to find new ways to approach a problem.
“The largest innovation is having a change in mindset, said Col Brian Pukall, 557th WW commander. “Starting from the very top of the Defense Department and Air Force, enabling Airmen to unleash their creativity and develop software that makes American forces more lethal and saves taxpayers’ money. The cyber-savvy Airmen of the 557th WW are poised to push the envelope even further in this arena.”