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MET shop upgrades dropsonde operator pallets

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --  

Even during the peak of hurricane season the meteorological equipment technicians, or MET shop, have upgrades to install on the WC-130J Super Hercules dropsonde operator pallet stations.

“We had three different groups of people in the office at the same time working on upgrades and additions to the dropsonde operator and the aerial reconnaissance weather officer pallets,” said Master Sgt. Crystal Register, 403rd Maintenance Squadron meteorological equipment technician.

These pallets are unique because they contain specialized weather collection data equipment and computer systems that are placed onto the WC-130J Super Hercules, which are flown through tropical weather systems, Atmospheric Rivers and winter storms.

One of the groups in the MET shop was from the National Center of Atmospheric Research, which issues and assists with software upgrades and were here helping with a current computer hardware upgrade.

“They provide us the hardware to upgrade the computers, so that the software we are required to use works correctly,” said Master Sgt. Michael Gehl, 403rd MXS MET non-commissioned officer in charge.

Some of that software is the basic Windows operating system, along with annual updated NCAR software for the aircraft-based pallet.

The MET shop has been working on upgrading the computers on the dropsonde pallets back to Windows 10 from Windows 7, which involves more than just the push of a button.

The MET shop technicians must remove the computers from the aircraft completely, upgrade the hardware, install the software, and reinstall the computers. Then the programs and computers need to be tested before they can be used during a storm mission.

“This upgrade began last year, but we didn’t realize that the computers we were using also needed a hardware upgrade. When they were first tested, they worked just fine,” said Gehl. “But now we are upgrading the hardware to complete the software update.”

The hardware fix came about after the 2021 season had some computer issues during flights, which resulted in downgrading to Windows 7 until a fix could be completed.

“Most testing for aircraft is completed on a separate, independent aircraft that isn’t a ‘working’ aircraft,” said Russell Evans, C-130 System Program Office avionics engineer at Warner-Robins AFB, Georgia. “But the weather aircraft are all operational aircraft, so they actually are used as both a test aircraft and working aircraft.”

The MET shop uses the training flights to test the computer systems, but routine training flight times last anywhere between one to four hours at most, while a storm flight can last between eight to 14 hours, which is when the hardware issue was noted and a solution was worked until the new upgrade could be put into effect.

At the same time, three members from the Army’s Prototype Integration Facility, or PIF, were in the shop taking detailed measurements to assist the MET shop and the Air Force Reserve Command by creating a technical data package, or blueprint, of the two pallet stations.

This technical data package, referred to as TDP, will assist the MET shop and program office engineering by providing complete and accurate physical, technical, mechanical, and electrical drawings of both the aerial reconnaissance weather officer and the dropsonde operator pallet stations, filling in gaps in their previous documentation.

“Having the TDP is something we have needed for a long time,” said Register. “It will be a great training tool, and if we need to repair, modify or upgrade the pallet station, we will have the actual specifications and part numbers to use on how to recreate it. Right now, when we need replacement parts, it requires extensive research and additional documentation.”

Evans said that the PIF will also be doing 3-D models for the digital realm, so that at some point in the future, proposed design changes can be made in the digital model space. The PIF will be delivering the TDP and technical manuals by approximately September 2023.

Gehl is ready for the manuals because as the only MET shop in the Air Force Reserve or Air Force, there is no other repair facility available like other shops due its unique mission set.

“We are the repair facility,” said Gehl. “So having these manuals will help troubleshoot issues instead of having to just dig into it and figure it out.” 

While NCAR and PIF were just two groups meeting with the MET shop and Evans that week, other collaborations were also going on at the same time.

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography members, NCAR, Evans, and the MET shop personnel discussed and tested the placement of more weather data gathering equipment on the aircraft and how it will connect to the dropsonde operator pallet system.

Evans and Gehl both agreed that meeting at the MET shop was beneficial for everyone because having all the different groups together worked out from seeing the aircraft, the placements, to talking and working through what each group needed.

“The synergy of having all of these groups together proved to be a fantastic success with everyone here working on different programs, since some of the modifications overlap or impact each other,” said Evans. “And to be able to meet with everyone, collect the information, get their goals, their schedule, it helps me when it comes to moving these upgrades and mods through the system.”