Air Force Flies Into Era of Computer Weather Forecasts : Contracts: Contel in Westlake Village will equip air bases with computer graphic weather forecast systems under a $79 million, 10-year agreement.


What’s a big difference between a commercial airliner and an Air Force plane? Dozens of passengers, of course. But there’s another: Commercial pilots often are given more ample and sophisticated weather data than that provided to Air Force fliers.

Air Force meteorologists, using data slowly spewed from Teletype machines, still mark up crude weather maps with grease pencils to give fliers an idea of the weather they’ll encounter. Yet the data often is hours old. The weather stations located at each of the 186 Air Force bases worldwide are simply antiquated.

Now, however, the Air Force is about to fly into the modern world weather-wise. Last month, it awarded a $79-million, 10-year contract to Contel Federal Systems in Westlake Village to equip every Air Force base with a computerized system that displays current weather from around the globe in detailed, colorful graphics.

The system moves the Air Force “from an era of manual operations to an era of computer-based, automated support,” said Sgt. David Black, a spokesman at the the Air Force’s Air Weather Service at Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Ill.


It will be the first major enhancement of the Air Force’s weather stations in three decades, said Contel Federal, a unit of the telecommunications giant Contel Corp. Contel’s system gives up-to-the-minute readings on temperature, pressure systems, wind direction, jet streams and other meteorological gauges so that the bases can give pilots more precise forecasts.

“It’s the ability to predict more accurately,” said Horace Lindsay, vice president and general manager of Contel Federal’s Westlake Village operation, which employs 400 people.

That’s important, he said, because unlike commercial pilots who usually fly routes behind several other airlines and can get weather relayed from the jets ahead, an Air Force plane might be “going to some place in the South Pacific and they’re going nonstop and they’re on their own.”

Contel will start installing the systems in July, with the first to be hooked up at McGuire AFB near Trenton, N.J. The basic system costs about $40,000 and is a desk-size workstation that includes two color monitors, each about the size of a 20-inch television set but with twice the clarity and resolution of standard TVs. The system primarily uses computer equipment supplied by Sun Microsystems and Chromatics.

(Contel Federal Systems group specializes in packaging various computer and telecommunications products into tailored systems for the government, primarily the military.)

The Contel weather computers still rely mostly on weather data from several common sources, such as the National Weather Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Air Force’s own Global Weather Central site in Omaha, Neb.

What makes the Contel system more sophisticated is its ability to constantly receive and assimilate the data and then display it to an Air Force meteorologist in either picture or word form. That enhances the meteorologist’s ability to forecast the weather for the pilots, said Gabe Reddig, manager of business development for Contel Federal.

“It will allow rapid access and manipulation of weather data to produce forecasts, warnings and briefings,” Black said.

The system’s monitors can be split into eight pictures, and it shows much more detail than the conventional cloud-cover photos that satellites provide for the evening news. Contel’s graphics can focus only on wind direction, storm fronts, pressure readings or precipitation. They can look at the globe, or just southeast Florida. They can provide a view looking down from above or a horizon view that more closely resembles what a pilot would see.

Contel, which beat out ITT Corp. and Unisys Corp. to win the contract, said the new system was not in response to a rash of Air Force accidents. “There’s not been many weather-related accidents and they do make do with what they have” in terms of weather maps, Reddig said.

Rather, the system is meant to enhance fliers’ safety and to help the Air Force make tactical decisions in battle.

“They don’t want to know that the sun may come out tomorrow,” he said. “You can’t make an invasion into an area if you’re going into a dirt runway and the thing is sopping wet with 2 feet of mud.”

Contel Federal Systems overall accounted for $526 million, or 17%, of Contel’s $3.1 billion in total revenue last year. The Contel operations in Westlake Village, which have annual revenue of about $60 million, have been around since 1968. The business had three different owners, including Eaton Corp., before Contel bought the division in September, 1988.