Copyright HELDREF PUBLICATIONS May/Jun 2003 WEATHERWISE
From Cold War espionage to space-age triumph, retired U.S. Air Force meteorologist Lieutenant Colonel Hank Brandli remembers forecasting for critical moments in American History.
When Hank Brandli joined the U.S. Air Force in 1959 and began to take a keen interest in meteorology, he could never have imagined the ways in which his weather forecasts would affect American history. Brandli's analysis of classified satellite imagery assisted a major space-based spy program and led him to risk his job and freedom by intervening in the Apollo 11 space mission for the safety of the astronauts. His experiences taught him the unquantifiable value of accurate weather prediction to both military and scientific operations.
But they remained his experiences alone, until 1995, when President Bill Clinton ordered the declassification of satellite images collected by some of the earliest U.S. reconnaissance systems. Finally Brandli was able to recount his stories of the events behind the scenes of a few of America's great moments.
Navigating an Island at a Time
When Brandli finished his tour of duty in Vietnam, he began work at Hickam Air Force Base on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu. His assignment in 1967 was to analyze weather satellite photos from agencies such as NOAA and NASA and the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) at the Department of Defense and to make forecasts for several classified projects, including a satellite spy program named Corona.
"The first and most important step in analyzing and interpreting satellite imagery was, and still is, recognizing geographical landmarks for the placement of latitude and longitude lines on the photos in a process called `gridding,"' Brandli says.
"Overlays, underlays, slide projections, light tables, and a flexible French curve were some of the tools we used then while gridding weather pictures from space," he explains. "Today, computers do most of the work of placing geopolitical borders and latitude/longitude lines on the images, but landmarks still have to be located in order to check the grids."
The task of finding such landmarks presented Brandli with a major challenge when he was assigned to forecast for large areas over the Pacific Ocean. In the vast Pacific there are few distinct landmasses. Gridding was not easy. Brandli knew he could use the larger Hawaiian Islands as the first point of reference, but he needed a second point to predict the precise location of weather and account for any satellite altitude or attitude problems.
He quickly discovered that two small coral islands projecting through the expansive blue water were the key to gridding the satellite images. Christmas Island, now called Kiritimati, and Fanning Island are the two largest of the northernmost Line Islands, a chain of 33 coral islands constituting the Republic of Kiribati. According to geologists, Kiritimati is the oldest atoll on Earth, with a length of 30 miles and a width of 5 to 15 miles.
"From space," Brandli says, "Christmas Island resembles a pork chop and Fanning Island looks like a homemade doughnut. Their locations near the equator-1,200 miles due south of the Hawaiian Islands-mean both islands enjoy mostly cloud-free skies."
Tracking the Skies in Secret
Once Brandli had determined how to grid the images successfully, they served as the only way to observe weather in the open ocean. "The U.S. government relied on Pacific Ocean forecasts-my forecasts-for some of its most critical and classified operations of the late '60s and early '70s."
Before the emergence of modern technological mapping systems, air force meteorologist Hank Brandli correlated satellite images of the vast Pacific Ocean to their location on the map by creating a grid of the area using Fanning Island (top), its neighbor, the distinctive pork chop-shaped Kiritimati (middle), and the Hawaiian Islands (bottom), 1,200 miles to the north.
Below is a weather satellite photo of the area of interest.
One of the many missions his forecasts supported involved a midair recovery of film canisters ejected from the Corona spy satellites. Corona satellites photographed China, Russia, and other politically sensitive areas of the world. To save film, ground personnel programmed the cameras on the Corona satellites to snap shots only when clear weather was predicted over the target zones. Those weather predictions came from air force meteorologists who had access to classified DMSP imagery from polar-orbiting satellites 450 miles above Earth.
Brandli also had access to classified satellite imagery, and he used it to forecast conditions for the retrieval of Corona's film. Film canisters in heat-shielded capsules were ejected from the satellites like little missiles for re-entry into the atmosphere. Brandli's forecasts not only ensured good weather on recovery day but also helped determine the path of the capsules as they tumbled to Earth.
At 50,000 feet, a parachute emerged from the capsule, and a radio beacon guided a team of circling C- 130 airplanes to its location. Brandli says the forecast at 35,000 to 8,000 feet was the most critical, noting that winds at that level can be strong and can carry the capsule away from the waiting planes. "They always caught it at exactly 12,500 feet," he notes.
Several hours before the scheduled catch near the Hawaiian Islands, the 9th Weather Wing of Air Weather Service (AWS) dispatched a WC-- 135 weather reconnaissance aircraft from McClellan Air Force Base in California. The plane took cloud observations in one-degree squares along the projected track of the film canister capsule. Brandli used these planes to calibrate DMSP sensors and to verify his satellite-based meteorology.
Then it was time for the catch. "Six C-130s lined up about 40 miles apart, and the number two aircraft always caught the parachute," Brandli says. "Number one would orbit around and check the weather, and number two would go in. That's the way it was always done."
The catch plane trailed a large trapezelike piece of equipment as it flew over the parachute. The trapeze hooked onto the parachute, and the capsule with its secret cargo of spy film was then hauled onboard the plane.
"You might think clear skies are ideal for this kind of thing, but actually the C-130 pilots liked low scattered clouds so they could set up a horizon. Ideally they needed clouds with bases around 2,000 feet and tops around 4,000 to 5,000 feet, stratocumulus, because a sky-ocean background without clouds looks limitless," Brandli explains. He also had to make sea-state forecasts in case pararescue teams had to go into the ocean to retrieve the canister capsule.
During these operations, Brandli could hear the pilots talking back and forth, but his job did not require him to know all the details, and he was often kept in the dark about parts of the mission. But he was a keen observer.
"From command post, it was all in code," he remembers. After several of these missions, he got pretty used to the code and was able to decipher much of what was going on.
One Blind Eye on the Weather
It was only through piecing together the code that Brandli realized on one particular occasion that he was forecasting for the first cruise missile test. Operation HOTEL was so highly classified that Brandli was told nothing about the mission he was asked to forecast.
"I'm in my vault with my satellite stuff," Brandli recalls of the room in which he made his secret forecasts, "and this major comes from Nebraska with a special task, and they can't tell me why he's there." Brandli laughs as he tells the story of the major, who actually stayed at his house during this special mission. To this day, the major won't tell him what the mission was, but Brandli says he's 99 percent convinced that he knows. "So, I'm in my vault and they tell me to make a forecast for an area northeast of Kauai. And the major is going to tell me when-uh, well-there's going to be something there. And I say, `What, are they going to catch something?' He says, `Yeah, just pretend it's a [film] canister.'
During the 1960s and 1970s, military meteorologists forecast cloud cover and visibility over sensitive areas of the world, enabling U.S. spy satellites to capture images like this one over Moscow and the Kremlin. The inset photo illustrates some of the highest-resolution imagery by this camera system. In this photo, the line of people waiting to enter Lenin's tomb in Red Square is apparent (far left).
"I'm hearing pilots talking, and I'm thinking, `What is this?' It's all in code. I start figuring out what the codes are because of similarity with other operations. So I get that it's a B-52 way out in the Pacific just below 50,000 feet launching something."
Brandli determined that the B-52 was launching something on a programmed track-something that was going to be caught by one of the C-130s.
"I couldn't tell 100 percent," he says, "but it all fit. A B-52 had launched a missile on a programmed track. It was unheard of, amazing stuff. It was the first cruise missile test!" Brandli says.
Brandli's "vault" figured in other military operations as well, including one monumental American event for which he was unable to claim participation until recently-- the triumphant return of the Apollo 11 astronauts after the first moonwalk.
Houston, the Eagle is Screaming
The astronauts of Apollo 11 were scheduled to splash down in the Pacific about 600 miles west-northwest of the Line Islands-a known thunderstorm region in the thick of the Intertropical Convergence Zone, according to Brandli. Three to four days before Apollo 11 was to return to Earth, Brandli determined that a storm system he had frequently observed and dubbed a "screaming eagle," because of its eagle-like cloud formation, would be present at the site of the scheduled splashdown.
"This system would be intensified by strong upper winds creating huge thunderstorms with [cloud] tops well over 50,000 feet. I considered it a threat to the historic return of the moon men, so I convinced the navy-specifically Captain [Willard] 'Sam' Houston, commanding officer of Fleet Weather Central at Pearl Harbor-to alert NASAs Manned Space Flight Center," Brandli says.
But it wasn't a matter of simply picking up the phone and briefing those in charge. Brandli's satellite images were strictly "Special Access Required." No one was supposed to know that they existed. They were so secret that Brandli recalls putting fake satellite images up on the screen when officials as high ranking as generals were taken on tours of his area. "I wasn't allowed to show them to anyone."
"I couldn't sleep at night," he says of the days before the Apollo 11 landing. "I knew that the Apollo 11 would come back and they would get killed because I had this classified information. A screaming eagle would be moving westward and would hit this area. I know this is going to happen. Nobody is allowed to see my pictures." Brandli decided to take a risk.
Sam Houston had just come to Hawaii from Washington, and Brandli convinced him to meet him in the parking lot of his office. He took Houston to the vault and showed him his satellite images.
"Houston had to believe me that this was going to happen, and he in turn had to convince an admiral who was in charge of the fleet to move the Hornet [the navy carrier waiting to collect the astronauts upon splashdown]," says Brandli. "But, he had to do it without the pictures, without telling anyone how he knew these things."
Seventy-two hours before the Apollo 11 splashed down into the ocean, Houston persuaded NASA to reprogram the re-entry and change the course and position of the USS Hornet. He never told a soul where he got the information.
"NASA sent planes to the original landing site and found exactly what I had forecast-- huge ocean swells, turbulence, and thunderstorms that would have shredded any parachute," Brandli says.
With access to classified satellite images, Brandli was one of few meteorologists familiar with a distinct series of cloud formations that moved over the Pacific at a steady five knots for days before exploding into thunderstorms. He dubbed them -screaming eagles" and outlined their eagle-like appearance on this original satellite image.
Rescues and Rain Campaigns
After March 1970, the DMSP weather satellites that Brandli used for forecasting became even more effective as several key features were dramatically improved. Radiometer resolution improved to less than 1/3 of a mile, and visual and infrared images could now be viewed simultaneously, as could better night photos both with and without moonlight.
During the Vietnam War, Brandli and other forecasters used DMSP to observe and predict moonlit clouds, breaks in clouds, and lightning as well as pinpoint burning rice paddy fields to warn pilots of the extent of smoke and haze coverage.
One of the most publicized operations in Southeast Asia was the attempt to rescue American POWs from a prison located at Son Tay in 1970. The mission was carried out during ideal weather conditions because military weather forecasters knew that a tropical storm-- Typhoon Patsy, approaching the South China Sea from the east with a northeast low-level flow preceding the storm-would cause clear weather in North Vietnam. The Son Tay raid relied on a highly accurate three- to five-day forecast based on DMSP data.
In another mission, Operation POPEYE involved cloud seeding by three WC-130As and two RF-4Cs. During operations, military personnel dropped silver or lead iodide flares into the clouds to cause heavy rainfall in hopes of flooding roads and disrupting North Vietnam's supply routes. Only a handful of high-ranking Defense and State Department officials ever knew of the weather mission.
The Apollo 11 command module is hoisted onto the USS Hornet. Calm weather over the landing site played a vital role in the safe return and recovery of the first manned mission to the moon.
Of course, cloud seeding has had a long and controversial history, and its record in Southeast Asia is uncertain. "How do you verify something during a war?" Brandli asks. Despite its uncertain efficacy, it drew criticism when the program was first revealed.
In 1971, Washington Post columnist Jack Anderson broke the story, upsetting some American legislators because they thought the practice violated certain treaties. Shortly thereafter, Senator Claiborne Pell made the classic comment: "Would you rather get hit with raindrops or bombs?"
Fun in the Vault
Of course, not all of the imagery was used for such serious matters, and Brandli did manage to have a little fun with his job. When the World War II film Tora! Tora! Tora! was being filmed in Hawaii, Brandli decided to lend a hand. His neighbor, retired Air Force Colonel Art Wildern, was in charge of filming the aircraft in a scene depicting the attack on Pearl Harbor. Good weather was crucial for a successful shoot.
"I told Art to call me any time-which he did often-for weather information. He never knew for 30 years that I used classified DMSP imagery for those forecasts," Brandli says.
And, as it did for countless other projects that relied on the amazing technological advances of satellite imagery for meteorological forecasting, the weather cooperated just as predicted.
A young Brandli (center), with Sergeants Bill Balestra (left) and Walt Ebo (right) at
Ton-Son Nhut AFB Vietnam in 1967, learned forecasting skills that would make him
an important part of American history.
CARLY KITE is a freelance writer in New York, where she is studying English at the University of Albany. She has worked for various publications in the Boston area, including MIT's Technology Review magazine.