WASHINGTON — As a newly minted special operator arriving on his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2010, Air Force Staff Sgt. Travis Sanford looked at the men who were now technically his peers and wondered how he’d measure up.
Even more impressive than the kingly beards they sported was the way they carried themselves, with a quiet but supreme confidence that no matter what came their way, they would handle it.
“Am I in over my head?” he wondered, as he prepared to fly to a remote firebase in northwestern Afghanistan that would be home in the coming months.
Within days, he got to find out. In his first major operation with the Marine special operations team to which he was attached, an intense firefight erupted. After machine-gunning Taliban positions for a spell, Sanford dashed from cover to drag a wounded sniper off the top of a hill by his heels. Later, he carried the man, who’d been shot in the head, toward a landing zone for evacuation, then returned to fighting.
His actions in the battle resulted in him being awarded a Bronze Star with valor device, and showed he belonged in the elite fraternity he’d entered.
He was just doing his job, Sanford said, same as the others.
But one aspect of his job was different than anyone else’s in the squad.
As bullets flew around him, Sanford’s training kicked in and he began carrying out the assignment he’d been sent to Afghanistan for. With the helicopter approaching, he made a rapid series of atmospheric observations to help guide it safely to the landing zone, including estimations of wind speed and direction, visibility and cloud conditions.
Instead of shooting or first aid, Sanford’s primary contribution to the war effort has been through weather observations and forecasts.
He’s known as a special operations weather technician, or SOWT, one of a small group of airmen who keep an eye on the sky in some of the most dangerous spots on earth. Equal parts scientist and commando, they’re likely in the mix whenever a high-priority special operations mission is being planned.
“You think of a weather guy as someone sitting at a desk doing a five-day forecast,” said Maj. William Schroeder, an Air Force weather officer slated to become squadron commander for special operations weather technicians next year. “But in reality, if there’s a SEAL mission, a Green Beret mission, there’s a good chance one of our guys is right there with them.”
Besides the Middle East, the 100 or so members of the 10th Combat Weather Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla., are working in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia, and normally embedding with Army Special Forces units.
“Bottom line is, you can find a SOWT anywhere in the world, wherever those skills are needed,” said Col. Bryan Adams, weather division chief at Air Force Special Operations Command.
The special ops weathermen — no women are allowed in the combat-intensive job — undertake the same intense survival, tactical and weapons training as other Air Force special operations personnel. Before they can carry out their weather-focused mission, they have to prove they won’t be liabilities in combat alongside the United States’ most elite fighters. As a result, about 70 percent wash out in the early stages of selection and training, Adams said.
That’s followed by months of technical training that teaches them all the forecasting skills a local network weatherman has — with the key difference that SOWTs learn to do the job on snowy mountain slopes, deep in rainy jungles and in the midst of blowing sandstorms.
The missions are varied, and the specifics of most are classified, but a typical one involves slipping quietly into an area with Army Special Forces troops to lay the groundwork for a large operation. That could mean setting up networks of tiny, remote weather sensors, analyzing soil type and terrain so commanders can bring vehicles in or land aircraft, and gauging river depths and flow to make crossings safer.
SOWTs can make both extended forecasts and on-the-fly observations using sensors, weather balloons and other equipment to ease air support missions and help commanders take the environment into account as they plan operations.
“Day in and day out, you’re telling them things like, ‘On Friday we’re going to have ceilings on cloud layers at 12,000 feet,’ or ‘we’re going to have fog coming in tomorrow,’ or ‘the moon is going to have illumination,’ ” Sanford said.
Those skills have proven especially crucial in the severe, mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, where avalanches menace mountain passes during the winter and weather conditions turn on a dime year-round.
In one recent mission, a unit required evacuation from a mountain valley in an area known for dense fogs. Commanders didn’t know if low-flying helicopters could reach them safely, so a SOWT was quickly parachuted into the area.
“He dropped into the pass and was able to make the call that yes, this pass was going to be good for another hour,” Adams said. “Because of that, the helicopters got through and took those guys out before they got stuck by weather.”
The answer isn’t always yes. During a recent deployment to Afghanistan, Schroeder was working at a task force headquarters at Bagram Air Field when an aircraft went down in a storm high in the mountains. Hundreds of miles from the crash site, with no first-hand observations to rely on, Schroeder poured over satellite imagery and other data while a rescue mission revved up.
Time was of the essence if there were any injured survivors, but Schroeder also knew that a wrong decision could compound a tragedy and ultimately cost more lives.
“I had to make the call, and the call I made was that we had to wait for better weather,” he said. “It was tough. ”
The rescuers who finally made it to the scene found no survivors, but told Schroeder the area looked like it had been undergoing blizzard conditions just hours before.
Enlisted special ops weathermen like Sanford spend less time at headquarters and more time in the field, a situation that suits the 27-year-old NCO. The fear he felt in his first days in Afghanistan quickly drained away, to be replaced by a methodical determination to carry out his weather mission and defeat the enemy.
“That first deployment was a good one,” he said. “We had multiple contacts with the enemy, upwards of 10.”
After two deployments, he’s taking a break from combat to instruct new AFSOC recruits in weapons use at Hurlburt Field. Most of them will wind up carrying out dicey combat rescue missions as pararescue personnel, or setting up remote landing fields and directing airstrikes as combat controllers.
But a minority will follow in his footsteps, providing crucial daily weather forecasts in some of the world’s toughest locales.
“I wanted to do weather,” Sanford said. “It turned out I just didn’t want to do it at a desk.”