Cold Fronts

by Jack Sharp

Chapter 10: Air Force Global Weather Central



By 1950 AWS had established nine separate weather centrals. Some forecasted for a particular region of the world while others focused on specific types of weather phenomenon, mainly severe weather: heavy thunderstorms and tornadoes, or hurricanes. The most significant among these centrals was the Global Weather Central, established at Offutt AFB, Nebraska in March 1949. However, it took eight years before this site would emerge as the hub of Air Force’s centralized weather support.

On July 1, 1954, (the same day I reported for duty at Pinecastle after receiving my BS in meteorology) the Weather Bureau, Navy, and AWS formed the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit (JNWPU) at Suitland, MD. Dr. George P. Cressman, then a civilian employee in Headquarters AWS’s Scientific Services Division, was named director. A first generation computer, the IBM 704, was installed in February 1955 and JNWPU’s first numerical weather prediction forecast was issued three months later on May 6th. Thus, AWS was an active participant in the birth of what was, without a doubt, the most important advance in weather prediction – mathematical modeling of the physics of the atmospheric.

JNWPU’s original model was rudimental and simplistic when compared to what would follow. It would take two years until in April, 1957, after a new, more sophisticated model was implemented that “JNWPU’s 72-hour, 500 millibar forecast was judged superior to its subjectively prepared counterpart.”

The JNWPU was not the first cooperative effort for these three weather agencies. Prior to it, the Joint Weather Bureau-Air Force-Navy (WBAN) Weather Analysis Center had already been formed in 1947, prompted by an over-abundance of raw data that at the time had to be manually sifted through. This increase in available data necessitated this collaboration.

In the meanwhile, the USAF Weather Central was established in 1949 at Andrews AFB, Maryland, to provide highly classified forecasts for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Department. In 1955 this unit was moved to Suitland, Maryland, just a few miles from Andrews. It continued to provide forecasts for classified projects including the first U-2 spy plane flights.

In 1957 this unit was moved to Offutt AFB, Nebraska, and merged with SAC’s Global Weather Central, while its climatological function stayed in the DC area to become a separate unit: the Air Force Climatic Center, later renamed ETAC.



Thus Global, originally established to meet SAC’s special needs, was now responsible to meet the needs of the Army and the entire Air Force, both classified and unclassified. In 1966 the Air Force approved the establishment of the Air Force Global Weather Central (AFGWC), 2nd Weather Squadron under the 6th Weather Wing at Andrews AFB, Maryland. In 1969 the 2nd Weather Squadron was deactivated and AFGWC was officially designated a named organization, and, like the AWN, was placed directly under Headquarters AWS.

Originally, Global shared SAC’s IBM 704, but by 1960 GWC was using 200 hours of processing time per month which exceeded the time SAC itself used. Their relatively tiny 704 (compared to today’s monsters) had, in fact, become saturated and the Air Staff quickly approved the purchase of a second generation IBM 7090 computer for Global which became operational in October, 1960, and in its first month of operation used 310 hours. By November 1961 7090 usage had increased to 390 hours per month.

Global’s IBM 7090 was upgraded to the more powerful IBM 7094 in May 1963. With this dramatic increase in computer power, AFGWC began to seriously develop its own numerical weather prediction capabilities. Global’s first numerical forecasting model became operational in 1964.

By this time Global had grown to a strength of 300 people, and by the time of my arrival in mid-1970 there were close to 540 military and civilian employees assigned. It was organized into six divisions plus the commander’s staff. Approximate figures for each division were as follows:


  • Commander’s Staff: 20

    Analysis and Forecasting 160

    Automation 110

    Current Operation (SAC) 50

    Development Branch 50

    Satellite Processing 110

    Special Projects 50

  • A number of meteorological firsts were achieved at Global in its earlier years, including:


  • Automated aircraft condensation trail forecasts in 1958.

    Computer wind factor (average tail or head wind over an entire flight path) in 1961.

    Computerized stratospheric (very high altitude) analyses in 1962.

    Numerical cloud forecasts in 1962.

    Automated production of facsimile charts in 1963.

    Automated reception of meteorological satellite data from a new Automated Picture Transmission (APT) station at Offutt AFB in 1963.

  • Colonel Steele

    One cannot even mention AFGWC without also describing Colonel Ralph J. Steele’s contribution to the growth of this unique and amazing organization. Steele commanded GWC and its successor AFGWC for five years, from 1965 until mid-1970, and his strong personality and brilliant mind contributed immensely to everything that transpired after his arrival.

    Art Gulliver first met Ralph Steele at an Army basic weather training center in 1942, and, years later, would serve as a civilian employee on Steele’s staff at AFGWC during his five year reign. Art agreed with me when I summarized Ralph Steele’s character in one word: impatient; brilliant, but impatient. Steele’s mind constantly raced ahead of most everyone else’s, and he had little patience for those who could not keep up with him.

    I was aware of this even though I never worked directly for him: my experience with Colonel Steele was as the AWN operational manager and later when I attended meetings with him after he left Global. A plethora of stories were in constant circulation about his brusqueness. If Steele was disturbed by the opening remarks of a briefer on one of Global’s numerous developmental projects he would start tapping his pencil on the desk. If he continued to be bothered, the tapping became more vigorous, and if the pencil finally bounced to the floor, he would, predictably, stand up and say, “I don’t think you’re ready yet to give a briefing,” and then leave the room, leaving the poor speaker in confusion. Most people who knew him agreed that Steele decided in the first five seconds after meeting a person whether he liked the person or not. If you were one of his anointed you could do no wrong, otherwise you could do no right. However, Dave Saxton has told me recently that he was able to reverse Colonel Steele’s opinion about a particularly talented person who worked for Dave.

    The timid had best apply elsewhere or risk developing even more self-doubt, but the more secure among us who could stand up to him would prosper. Colonel Galligar was such a man. At High Wycombe, Ray had described their first meeting the day Steele arrived as GWC’s new commander in 1965. Ray was a team chief in the weather central at the time, and one evening while he and his team were on duty Colonel Steele came into the Forecast Center, walked over to the wall on the other side of the room and began studying the latest forecast charts hanging there. Ray knew who his visitor was, and was also aware of Steele’s reputation. Colonel Steele stood silently for a while, studying a particular chart when he suddenly ripped it from the wall, crumpled it up, and threw it in the trash can. Ray casually walked over to his new boss and retrieved the chart from the trash, smoothed it out on a table and asked Colonel Steele if there was anything in particular about the forecast that he didn’t agree with. Ray was extremely competent and sure of himself and after this encounter was never summarily dismissed by Steele as some less competent and less secure officers on his staff were.

    Steele assembled a cadre of officers around him, most of whom, like Steele, were more comfortable with a leadership style that is best described as adversarial. I would have been uncomfortable working directly for him and often wondered how I would have fared. While I admired him (in fact, his brilliance and effectiveness deeply impressed me), I’m afraid I would have blurted out an objection if I had been present during one of his outbursts. Relating to him from outside his direct command, I could say what I thought without undue risk, but I had that opportunity on just a few occasions.

    The AWN was AFGWC’s life-line to the raw data Global continuously required in order to function, and I always believed that Colonel Steele would have preferred the AWN to deliver every last character it intercepted, garbage characters and all. While I understood it was basically Global’s data, I suspected that Steele didn’t trust anyone but his own people to edit “his” data in ways he could control. My ideas on how to clean the AWN’s data collection system up were only possible without Colonel Steele’s veto because I worked directly for Headquarters, AWS, and Steele could only recommend, not direct, the development of this system.

    It wasn’t until I heard that I was being transferred to AFGWC, that I finally realized that Colonel Steele must have respected my work, for as a Lieutenant Colonel I would be a senior staff officer there and knew that he must have approved, if not recommended, my assignment. I took this as a major compliment, but I still have no regrets that he departed Global the month before I arrived.

    He and Colonel Danny Mitchell switched jobs in July and Mitchell was already the commander of AFGWC when I arrived on August 1st, 1970. Steele moved to Scott AFB, Illinois and took Mitchell’s job as Director of Systems Division at Headquarters, AWS.

    This swap made for some interesting exchanges between these two men over the next few years. Art Gulliver tells me that whenever Colonel Steele received a directive from Colonel Mitchell while he was at Headquarters AWS, Steele would read it and if he disagreed would simply stick it in a drawer and ignore it. When Danny Mitchell replaced Steele at Global, he returned the favor.


    UNIVAC 1108s?

    Soon after Colonel Steele took command of Global he initiated a Data Automation Proposal (DAP) to upgrade the existing IBM 7094 computers to a third generation, computer-chip architectured system; preferably one of IBM’s new System 360. Within government circles, if a DAP doesn’t have sufficient clout behind it, approval takes forever. The “special strategic programs” Global supported provided more than enough clout for Steele’s DAP to be approved by the spring of 1967.

    A major flap enveloped the Pentagon in early 1967. IBM’s competitors leveled charges that the DoD had been writing their DAPs in ways favoring IBM, the undisputed computer giant: Big Blue. During my stay in Philadelphia while enroute to England in June 1967 I called Lou Westphal at AWS Headquarters and he told me that UNIVAC had just been awarded a contract to install their new 1108’s.

    UNIVAC? I was as surprised as most of the others in AWS. UNIVAC’s 418 Mini Computers were certainly doing a fine job in the AWN, but I had never heard of their 1108 system. At the time, I speculated that the DoD awarded UNIVAC this contract in an effort to appease those who had recently charged IBM and the Pentagon with unfair business practices. However, Art Gulliver has since told me that UNIVAC’s proposal included an offer to convert all of AFGWC’s extensive and complex software to its U-1108, and this was the deciding factor in the selection process. While this may have been the case, Art says that UNIVAC was never able to accomplish this horrendous task. The conversion took three years of blood, sweat and tears from dedicated AFGWC blue-suit meteorologist programmers and things were finally settling down just before I reported for duty at Global in the summer of 1970.

    During this period Colonel Steele placed Colonel Dave Saxton in charge of Global’s new Development Branch (100 people), and, according to Dave, “It was not Colonel Steele’s intention to simply convert last year’s programs to run on his new 1108s.” This group was charged with producing a complete suite of new, updated programs. Again, according to Colonel Saxton, “the only converted program used was the 1000 millibar (surface) prognosis module.”

    Major Hugh O’Niel says that UNIVAC provided a conversion program, NEILIAC, which they had used successfully elsewhere, but Hugh and his group had limited success with it and, instead, chose to rewrite their portions of the system. Due to time constraints, Hugh says that very few improvements were incorporated until the entire system was up and running in early 1969. Hugh also confessed to me that he detected what he thought must be truncation errors in his rewrite which he kept to himself at the time. He used mathematical smoothing techniques to minimize the effects.

    No matter how AFGWC wound up with U-1108s, they served us well. In fact, on November 10, 1970 (11/10/70) I listened with Colonel Mitchell and my new boss, Colonel Dave Saxton, to a presentation by UNIVAC describing their new U-1110’s, their next generation of number-crunchers. The announcement date selected, 11/10, cleverly matched the 1110 designation of their new product. AFGWC would eventually upgrade to UNIVAC 1110s.


    Building D

    SAC’s Global Weather Central was originally located in a deep A-bomb proofed underground bunker underneath Building 500, Headquarters of the Strategic Air Command. In 1965 a cement block building was constructed inside an existing cavernous building on Offutt AFB to house Global’s two UNIVAC 418s: their new AWN terminal. In 1969, this block house was expanded to provide a permanent home for AFGWC and its newly acquired UNIVAC 1108s.

    This huge building with a building built inside of it was called simply, Building D. Ever since its construction in 1941, the size of Building D has awed all who set eyes on it.

    The history of what happened inside Building D during WW II is an important bit of Americana that is worth repeating here. The information that follows was gleaned from Offutt Air Force Base Pamphlet (OAFBP) 210-1 titled “History of Building D,” published in 1981 to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of this edifice.

    More than a year before Pearl Harbor, General of the Army Henry H. (“Hap”) Arnold made an urgent recommendation that two new bomber factories be constructed plus an additional one for fighters. The war in Europe had heated up and our rapidly evolving national policy now dictated that we begin serious production of high quality combat aircraft. Although not yet at war, we had already committed ourselves to provide war materials to our allies.

    Omaha and Tulsa were chosen as sites for the bomber plants because of their locations deep inside our borders and thus judged safe in the event that US cities would one day be subjected to the devastation that had so recently visited London. A contract was signed on 14 February 1941 awarding to the Glenn L. Martin Company of Baltimore the right to operate the Omaha plant. Ground-breaking ceremonies took place on the 3rd of March. We would not go to war for nine more months.

    The speed with which the entire project proceeded was unprecedented in the annals of history and reflected the industrial might that at the time existed in our nation alone. A might that would inevitably relentlessly destroy the Axis Powers. Another testimony to our ability to mass produce the equipment of war in record amounts came from German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel who commented after the North African Campaign that, “The Americans were fantastically equipped.”

    By March 1941 Martin had a letter of intent from the government to build 1,200 B-26 Marauders in Omaha. Preparation for construction of Building D redefined the phrase “whole-hearted cooperation.” With almost lightning speed, simultaneous preparations came together. The first batch of concrete was poured on 7 April 1941, and on the 18th of June, structural steel was being put in place. At the same time, Burlington Railroad was busy modifying a pool of its freight cars to haul the B-26’s large wings from assembly plants 750 miles away.

    With Hitler threatening to invade Britain, construction continued seven days a week with three shifts of workers.

    Available workers in Omaha were mainly farm workers, housewives, and meat packinghouse workers. An initial work force of approximately 8,500 had to be trained and ready for work before the plant was ready for production. By October 1941 Building D was 98 percent completed.

    Limited production of some subassembly parts (small clamps for the Plexiglas nose where the bombardier would sit) began on New Years Day 1942 – less than ten months after Martin received the government’s letter of intent. However, necessary aircraft production tools were slow in arriving. By opening day only 50 percent of the required machine tools had been installed.

    Full production began on 8 June 1942, fifteen months after the ground-breaking. The 6th plane off the production line on August 31 was the first B-26 accepted by the Army Air Corp. By mid-December 1942 the plant was meeting its production schedule. By 8 May 1943 Martin of Omaha had completed half of its production goal and by January 1945, the Martin-Nebraska Company had received three coveted Army-Navy “E” Production Awards for twenty-four consecutive months of on-schedule production. The “E” stood for excellence.

    In mid-July 1943 it was announced that the Omaha plant had been chosen by the Army to build a brand new bomber, the B-29 Superfortress. This selection was based on Omaha’s enviable production record. Ground was broken the following month for construction of an additional 135,000 square feet to be added to the existing 1,200,000 square feet (twenty-five full-size football fields). The B-29 was a much larger air-frame.

    The B-29 was one of our nation’s best kept military secrets whose sole purpose was to bomb the Japanese Empire.

    While the plant tooled up for its next assignment, production of B-26s continued. By November 1943 the plant had completed the initial 1,200 Marauders, but additional orders kept this production line going for a while more. Production tapered off and on 4 April 1944 the last Omaha-built B-26 rolled off the line: the 1,585th

    B-29 Superfortress production began just two days later and the first B-29 was completed on May 24th, one month ahead of schedule. An astounding accomplishment. By 15 June 1945, Martin-Nebraska had produced 402 Superfortresses and was soon awarded its fourth Army-Navy “E.” When production finally ceased on 18 September 1945 the plant had produced 531 B-29s. The full complement of war workers in the Omaha-Council Bluffs area, about 12,000 to 15,000, were laid off within one month after Japan’s surrender.

    “Enola Gay,” the B-29 that dropped the first A-bomb on Hiroshima, was built in Omaha. In the spring of 1945 Colonel P. W. Tibbetts, Jr., aircraft commander of the “Enola Gay” visited the Omaha Martin plant and brought along a mock-up of the “secret weapon.” Omaha assembled over twenty specially designed B-29s.

    Quoting from the OAFBP 210-1, “Among the plant’s many records, one towers above the rest: the thirty-three consecutive months of on-schedule production. No other aircraft assembly plant in the nation even came close to the Martin-Nebraska record.”

    During the Cold war that followed, Offutt AFB became the permanent home of the Strategic Air Command, AFGWC’s original sponsor. In mid-1959 Building D was remodeled and became a guided missile assembly plant for SAC’s new inventory of intercontinental missiles. This era ended in December 1965. Since then, Building D has housed many Air Force organizations. The center of it’s spacious floor space was eventually housed the base motor pool. To this day, Building D still serves our country well. OAFBP 210-1 says of Building D, “within its walls the course of history was changed.”


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