Weather balloons put through their paces

This article has photo gallery Published on LEUT Steve Cropper (author), LSIS Kylie Jagiello (photographer)

Topic(s): HMAS Canberra (L02), Exercise OCEAN EXPLORER

Maritime Geospatial Officers Lieutenant Matthew Hawker and Lieutenant Alison Osborne prepare to launch a weather balloon from the flight deck of HMAS Canberra during Exercise OCEAN EXPLORER 2019. (photo: LSIS Kylie Jagiello)
Maritime Geospatial Officers Lieutenant Matthew Hawker and Lieutenant Alison Osborne prepare to launch a weather balloon from the flight deck of HMAS Canberra during Exercise OCEAN EXPLORER 2019.

The Navy Meteorologists embarked in HMAS Canberra for Exercise OCEAN EXPLORER 2019 are equipped with highly-sophisticated computer and satellite technology, but they still use the humble helium weather balloon to help create a real-time, local picture of battle space conditions.

OCEAN EXPLORER is testing and developing the Royal Australian Navy’s capability to conduct high-end war fighting in a maritime task group, including the ability to collect and apply crucial meteorological and ocean data.

Lieutenant Matthew Hawker is one of three Meteorologist/Oceanographers (METOCs) supporting the task group on board Canberra.

“This is a valuable opportunity for us to test and prove our technology and systems for tactical use at sea,” Lieutenant Hawker said.

Fellow METOC, Lieutenant Alison Osborne said the aim of accurate meteorological forecasting was to deliver a tactical advantage.

“Understanding the environment and taking advantage of prevailing conditions can make a decisive difference in battle.

“Efficient data modelling provides a high-level precis of data to Command and informs combat decisions by delivering an accurate picture of the battlespace from all angles,” Lieutenant Osborne said.

The Royal Australian Navy uses data from a range of sources including the Bureau of Meteorology and international satellites, but weather balloons deliver the most recent and most local meteorological data.

The balloons carry a self-calibrating Radiosonde RS-41 that collects data on air temperature, wind speed, air pressure and dew point, and returns that data to the ship by radio in real time.

Reaching an optimal altitude of 50,000 feet, the Finnish-designed Radiosonde sends data to the ship for up to three hours.

Canberra’s Senior Air Traffic Control Officer, Squadron Leader Ross Madsen said METOCs provided an important service in delivering tailored data products to specialist operations such as aviation.

“Long before the helicopters are in the air, Meteorological and Oceanographic data are used for advanced planning of air movements, allowing for sea states, visibility, rain, wind speed and direction and cloud height,” Squadron Leader Madsen said.

“This supports the effective planning, risk assessment and safe conduct of a variety of helicopter operations at sea, including search and rescue, passenger transfer, vertical replenishment and surface and sub-surface warfare.”

The Royal Australian Navy is also developing a capability in airborne and underwater drones to collect data.

For now though, METOCs will be seen launching the humble, but dependable, weather balloon from Royal Australian Navy ships.