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Enter Sandstorm-Man: METOC Marines

By | Marine Corps Air Station Yuma | August 14, 2014

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Without precise weather predictions, deployed Marines, along with the numerous logistical entities entrusted with their well-being, may be subject to unforeseen and possibly perilous conditions while completing their daily operations both on station and during deployments. Aircraft won’t fly, convoys cease and formations halt until Marine forecasters ensure weather conditions are safe.

The Meteorological and Oceanographic (METOC) analyst forecasters assigned to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., are tasked with a broad mission spectrum in terms of aviation operations.

In addition to looking out for the welfare of their fellow Marines on the ground, METOC forecasters influence 550-750 daily operations on the flight line, to include the departures and arrivals of military aircraft and Yuma International Airport’s civilian assets.

“The airfield and all of our squadrons use our forecast, so we can’t just disseminate information that we’re unsure about,” said Lance Cpl. Spencer Ballay, a METOC forecaster with Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron aboard MCAS Yuma. “Even though the climate is usually predictable, things can go crazy instantly because of the radically hot temperatures. If a thunderstorm drifts over here, it can blow up really quick.”

In the aggressive, gun-toting world that is the Marine Corps, support occupations, like forecasters, are often taken for granted; especially since these Marines comprise such a small and little known sect of the Corps. That is, until the wind howls and lightning strikes. Then everyone is grateful for the warnings METOC Marines provide.

Before forecasters join the operating forces, they must excel during nine months of demanding academics at Keesler Air Force Base, in Biloxi, Miss., following the entry-level challenges every Marine faces – recruit training and Marine Combat Training.

According to Ballay, transitioning from these tense environments to the schoolhouse was a significant change in his Marine Corps experience.

“Schooling was weird, in that, I heard about how [non-METOC Marines’] schooling was and how it was really strict and Marine Corps regimented,” said Ballay, a native of Lafayette, La. “Our school was nine months long and very hard academically, so they didn’t really want to put too much strain and pressure on us.”

Though this environment allows the Marines to garner a solid foundation of knowledge in their occupation, Ballay expressed that academics were by no means simple.

“We had to learn the basics - the sciences and math behind how to forecast weather, how to take observations and how weather systems work,” said Ballay. “A lot of moving parts go into making sure a forecast is spot on. It was pretty much like, they took a fire hose, shoved it down our throat and put it on full blast.”

Like many other Marines’ abrupt changeovers from student status to the Fleet Marine Force, Ballay had difficulties taking the MOS knowledge that he had absorbed and applying it to his day-to-day job.

“I went through nine months of schooling and, when I finally got here, I realized that I still don’t know anything at all,” said Ballay. “The hardest part was actually forecasting, actually having to brief real pilots, as opposed to mock briefs at the schoolhouse; and publishing a forecast online that people rely on to operate.”

A contributing factor to the difficulties Ballay faced is the wide spectrum of missions these Marines can be called on to carry out, expressed Staff Sgt. Michael Fitch, the staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the METOC department at MCAS Yuma.

“There are different aspects of this field that we do, and people don’t really know about. They think we just go outside and look at the sky, but it’s a lot more in-depth than that,” said Fitch, a native of Loveland, Colo.

“It’s just like any other MOS, in that we all have one mission to meet in support of the [infantry],” added Ballay. “However, my job feels most rewarding whenever a pilot comes back to us after a flight and lets us know our forecast was spot on – and then continues to come to us for whatever they need.”

Another highly-valued commodity provided by the MCAS Yuma METOC department is the Target Acquisition Weapon Software (TAWS).

This software allows pilots to predict the distance that they can precisely engage a target with infrared, television or night vision sensors without being detected. Due to the vast training grounds MCAS Yuma oversees, TAWS is a heavily employed asset during flight maneuvers.

“If they’re going to seek out a target, we can let them know what time their target will be most assessable, depending on what thermo-crossover [temperature reading] sensors they use,” said Fitch. “They give us what sensors they have, what the capabilities are of their aircraft are, and an eight digit grid of the target they are seeking. Based on those variables, we can get a background of their target through our radars and give them a general understanding as to how far out they can read and engage the target from.”

According to Fitch, the most rewarding aspect of being a METOC Marine, for him, was being forward deployed to Iraq and operating in an austere environment.

“Out there, we apply all aspects of our job through deployable gear and out of a meteorological mobile facility,” said Fitch. “We pretty much camp out in either a Humvee or Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle that has generators inside of its engine, so all we need is gas to keep pushing forward. There’s no internet connection, so we have to be vigilant in keeping all of the commanders informed as to what we are observing.”

Regardless of where METOC Marines set up shop, their analyses provide their commands with invaluable information needed to accomplish the mission.

In the air, on land and wherever the Marine Corps requires them.

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