Internships help ready the next generation of U.S. Air Force weather officers

weather officers

Cadet Mason Sorrell, right, completed an internship with Virginia Tech alumnus 1st Lt. Daniel Katuzienski, left, at the Air Force Institute of Technology.

The U.S. Air Force expects to commission just 30 weather officers from the 1,900 students finishing ROTC programs this year.

Virginia Tech, which offers a major in meteorology through the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s Department of Geography, anticipates that it will supply approximately 25 percent of those Air Force weather officers this year, more than any other university in the country.

“Weather officers are considered a critical need,” explained Lt. Col. Barry Burton, an instructor with the Air Force ROTC Detachment 875 at Virginia Tech. “The Air Force is short on flying-related ‘rated’ career officers, but there’s actually a restriction on the number of meteorology students who can compete for this training because the Air Force wants those cadets with meteorology backgrounds to fill the weather officer slots first.”

An Air Force weather unit is tasked with integrating current and forecasted atmospheric conditions into operations planning, as well as conducting and developing research in the field of meteorology. Burton is working to strengthen the crucial relationship between Virginia Tech and the Air Force by finding internships that will connect aspiring weather officers with former Hokies.

The data cruncher

Last spring, when Mason Sorrell, a member of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets and a senior meteorology major, raised his hand for an internship with the Air Force Institute of Technology, he didn’t know what to expect. However, when he found out that the researcher involved was 1st Lt. Daniel Katuzienski, he was glad to hear a familiar name.

“I didn’t know it was Katuzienski when I raised my hand,” Sorrell said. “I knew him from when he was at Virginia Tech, and I knew him from before that. We actually went to the same high school, and he was friends with my sister. It was an amazing coincidence to find out I’d be working with him because we had known each other for a long time.”

Currently a master’s student with the Air Force Institute of Technology, Katuzienski graduated from Virginia Tech and the Corps of Cadets with a degree in meteorology in 2015. His research focuses on developing radar forecasting techniques to better predict and mitigate lightning impacts on Air Force Space missions.

“The 45th Weather Squadron at Cape Canaveral is tasked with producing weather forecasts for the American space program,” Katuzienski explained. “As you can imagine, lightning and rockets don’t necessarily mix. My project focused on optimizing Doppler weather radar parameters to improve radar lightning forecast methods at the cape.”

Katuzienski then tested his lightning forecasting algorithm in the western deserts of Utah. The project required a great deal of data organizing and processing, and Katuzienski asked if he could recruit a cadet from Virginia Tech to help with the work.

“Cadet Sorrell came out in July and just started working through the files,” Katuzienski recalled. “He went through 10 gigabytes of data, including 2,000 weather radar files, 900 lightning mapping arrays data files, and approximately 200 upper air sounding measurements from Salt Lake City.”

Sorrell added, “My job was to essentially crunch the data. I gathered files and put them into Excel sheets so that Katuzienski’s MATLAB code could run through the information.”

When Katuzienski sensed that Sorrell was getting bored cycling through data, he had the cadet practice running some of the programing code for the project.

“Sorrell ran all of the code for one of my preliminary cases, trying to figure out strike times and locations of lightning events,” Katuzienski said. “And he did some preliminary statistical analysis of the data, which allowed me to get a jump-start on the data analysis end of the project.”

For Sorrell, the opportunity to do an internship at the Air Force Institute of Technology was an important first experience in what it will be like when he commissions into the Air Force.

“Being a cadet, you’re always shielded to a certain extent. Even the expeditions you go on, you’re going with an officer or a group of people. But for this internship, I was all by myself, driving up to Ohio and staying in hotels and working at my own pace for Lt. Katuzienski. It was an accurate experience for what an actual temporary duty assignment in the military would look like. When I’m assigned to one in the future, I’ll have a little more understanding of the structure and a little experience having worked with new people in a new environment.”

Looking ahead

For Burton, this kind of internship experience is one that he would like to build on at Virginia Tech.

“Sorrell’s internship with the Air Force Institute of Technology was a tremendous experience. Given his pilot skills test scores, we thought he was destined to be a pilot, but the Air Force had other plans. After the internship, Sorrell came back to campus excited about going into the meteorology field and about being a weather officer. And from Katuzienski’s perspective, he wrote us a letter saying that Sorrell’s help got him several months ahead of schedule in his research.”

Recognizing the important role that Virginia Tech plays in supplying the Air Force with critically needed weather officers, Burton would like to strengthen the relationship between Virginia Tech, Air Force operational weather agencies, and the Air Force Institute of Technology by increasing the number of internship opportunities available for cadets.

“We have 38 meteorology majors in our program of Air Force ROTC who have to do field studies. We’re in the process of trying to develop an internship program with Air Force weather agencies and the Air Force Institute of Technology,” Burton said. “If they can support our cadets doing their field studies, we can support the research of graduate students with qualified cadets who know something about meteorology. It seems like a great opportunity for both Virginia Tech and the Air Force.”

Katuzienski echoed the value of internships in developing dedicated weather officers: “I think you get your best officers when you invest in them early on in their cadet career and get them excited about what lies ahead. As Virginia Tech is producing a significant percentage of the active duty weather officers in the Air Force, I think internships like these are where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck.”

Sorrell finished his undergraduate degree in December and commissioned into the Air Force in January. He attended the Weather Officer Course at Keesler Air Force Base in March and will be a commissioned weather officer at Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he will do forecasting work for the southeastern branch of the Air Force.

“The biggest thing about interning at the Air Force Institute of Technology was realizing that I was interested in the field,” Sorrell said. “Having worked with Lt. Katuzienski, I’m very interested in pursuing a master’s degree.”

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