I Want Your Job: Military weather forecaster

'I know the way the wind blows'
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The Independent Online

Vicky Huntly, 26, is a Mobile Met Unit forecaster at the Royal Air Force Benson base in Oxfordshire.

What do you actually do?

My job is to produce weather forecasts for the air crew I work with. I tell them the strength and direction of the winds, what height the clouds are at, and what the visibility is like, so they can fly safely. There are Met forecasters in all Royal Air Force stations. I'm in the Mobile Met Unit, a part of the Met Office that's made up of forecasters who are also reserve officers in the RAF, so I've worked as a forecaster with the armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, where weather conditions were very different. When I was in Kabul, there was often a haze over the city in the morning, because the locals were burning sheep droppings to cook their breakfast on.

What's a typical day at work like?

I work days and nights. I start by asking the forecaster on duty before me what's been happening. In poor weather conditions, I could be fielding phone calls right away. I prepare forecasts and answer questions throughout the day from the air crew and other staff who may need to know whether there's snow or ice on the runway. I look at satellite pictures, rainfall and thunderstorm activity, merging that information with a 4-D model generated by the "super computer" at the Met Office headquarters. It's not an exact science - there's an art to it, too. As much as we've improved, sometimes the way the atmosphere behaves can't be explained in terms of science, so you've got to get used to getting it wrong.

What's the greatest thing about your job?

I'd say there are two things: first, the weather changes all the time, so what you've got to do can really vary from one day to the next. Different aircraft react to weather conditions in different ways, so some planes are more sensitive to wind than others. The other thing I like is the constant interaction with people. The crew tell you that your prediction was spot on, but if you've made a mistake, you'll probably get a bit of banter afterwards.

What's tough about it?

The night shifts do take some getting used to, and they can interrupt your social life. It can be stressful, especially if you're working somewhere like Iraq. I had a colleague who got a phone call from a crew in Basra who were caught in a dust storm, and were trying to decide what to do. Luckily, I haven't experienced that level of stress yet.

What skills do you need to be a weather forecaster?

You need A-levels in maths and physics. To be a direct entrant into the Met Office, you need a good degree in maths, physics, computer sciences or meteorology. It takes more than a year to be a qualified Met Office forecaster. You spend a year studying at the Met Office College, and doing practical on-the-job training. You need to be very analytical, with good judgement and communication skills. It helps to be the sort of person who can stand up in front of up to 100 people to present a PowerPoint briefing on night flying, for instance. And of course, you've got to be interested in the weather.

What advice would you give someone who wanted your job?

Get some work experience. Write to your local Met base and ask to come in and observe - there are work placements for undergraduates. If you're interested in the Mobile Met Unit, you could join the cadets or the officer training corps, which would give you a really good grounding on what life in the armed services is like.

What's the salary and career path like?

The starting salary is about £18,000, plus allowances. It's a fantastic career move, because once you're qualified, there are so many different areas to work in within the Met Office. You could work at the headquarters in Exeter, at an RAF base or a civilian flying station, in the London Media Unit, broadcasting with the BBC, or embedded with the Highways Agency.

For more information on careers in weather forecasting, go to www.metofficegov.uk