Student Forecasters Provide Guidance for Balloonists
Hot-air balloonists are pilots and like their fixed-wing counterparts, they rely on a keen knowledge of the weather condition before they launch their craft into the blue. In fact, it could be easily argued that balloonists are even more dependent on reliable weather information and forecasts because they are at the mercy of the weather and use the wind to steer their buoyant vessel and its vulnerable human payload to a safe landing.
It is typical for a balloon event to schedule a briefing prior to each launch to assess the current weather conditions, get an update on the forecast and based on that information, estimate the direction, distance and duration of their flight and consider potential safe landing sites. Pilots are ultimately responsible for the safety of their balloon and passengers, just as are commercial airline pilots for the ships’ captains.
Millersville meteorology has a long history of involvement with the ballooning community going back to 1988 when Dr. Richard Clark, earth sciences, gave a presentation on “The Basics of Weather for Balloonists” at the John Wise Balloon Society’s Back-to-Basics seminar, and continuing to this day with a recent presentation to the Great Eastern Balloon Association at Rutgers University. Balloonists are required by the FAA to complete two hours of weather instruction each year to maintain their pilot certification. In addition, for several years Millersville has been providing a suite of special forecast products for balloonists, which are created from the Weather Research and Forecast (WRF) modeling system that runs operationally in house twice each day (www.atmos.millersville.edu/~wrf/balloon/). These products display weather information in a format that is familiar and useful to balloonists, such as reporting winds at altitude in units of feet instead of meters and focusing on the lower atmosphere where balloonists spend most of their time while in flight.
This summer an opportunity arose for four meteorology students to engage in operational forecasting for several balloon events. This spring, these students completed a course in Boundary Layers and Turbulence (ESCI 448) that served to strengthen their conceptual understanding of lower atmospheric processes. Now as forecasters, they can gain valuable operational experience in an authentic setting.
Three of the meteorology students, Tyler Morrow, Brian Lada and Jeff Rafach, spent their Memorial Day weekend providing weather information for a balloon event in Frankenmuth, Mich. Scott Kacelowicz, also a meteorology major, will join the group in Meadville, Pa., later in June. The team has also committed to events in Canton and Middletown, Ohio, this summer. Equipped with hand-held weather instruments for in-situ surface observations, pilot-balloons (pibals) and a tracking scope known as a theodolite to measure aloft winds, and Internet access to weather radar, WRF products, and terminal forecasts, these students are providing weather briefings that pilots use in their flight planning. The weather is the paramount factor in the pilots’ decision to fly their craft and Millersville continues to carry on its legacy of providing critical weather information to balloonists.