Lightning in five! How MacDill operates in ‘The Lightning Capital of the United States’

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Kristin Nielsen
  • 6th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

When you think of Tampa Bay, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is it MacDill? The hot and humid weather? Or is it the electrifying thunderstorms that feel like clockwork during the summer months?

MacDill sits at the very bottom of the Tampa Bay peninsula, receiving more lightning than most areas in the United States. This has earned Tampa the reputation of “The Lightning Capital of the United States.” MacDill has embraced its community’s reputation, using lightning bolts on the tails of our jets.

Why is Tampa commonly known as “The Lightning Capital?” Why has it become such a large cultural symbol for MacDill and the surrounding communities? Most importantly, how does this affect our people and mission?

To answer these questions, there was only one place to start: The 6th Air Refueling Wing Operations Support Squadron Weather shop. The 6 OSS/OSW is composed of nine airmen who work to predict and understand our unique weather environment.

The weather airmen forecast the routes of our KC-135 Stratotankers, for both takeoff and landing. The airmen also forecast the local weather for the people living and working on MacDill and focus on resource protection, ensuring assets are safe from any inclement weather.

Senior Airman Charlie Stenlund, a weather shop technician, spoke about their unit’s mission. “We predict the future, using science to back it up.”

Tampa Bay is encased by constant moisture and instability in the summertime. “We’re surrounded by water, and then we’re surrounded by even more water,” said Stenlund. “It’s the perfect recipe for lightning storms.”

Stenlund added that the water in the atmosphere, mixed with a little bit of sea breeze, means you get a thunderstorm almost every day in the summer months.

“It’s an extremely dynamic environment,” said Master Sgt. Adam Baker, noncommissioned officer in charge of 6 OSS/OSW. “The ingredients for lightning are always there, it just depends on how and where they mix.”

Tampa has the most thunderstorm days on average in the United States, at around 85 days per year. And where there’s thunder… there’s lightning. Last year, MacDill saw 68 strikes on the installation alone.

“Lightning can have a huge impact on MacDill’s operations. It can ground our planes,” said Baker. “It can stop our planes from landing. It can stop our maintainers from working.”

Our operations can be heavily influenced by our dynamic weather. So how do we stay safe from lightning, both for the safety of our people and the success of our missions?

We have sensors on the runways that detect lightning. This fixed meteorological equipment, or “FMR,” and tactical meteorological equipment, or “TMR,” tells us whenever lightning strikes up to 50 nautical miles from base.

Our weather airmen study meteorological patterns, monitor weather equipment, and routinely speak to pilots to ensure they stay safe from any inclement weather.

“You can never get complacent because of Tampa Bay’s reputation as the lightning capital,” said Baker. “The weather here will always keep you on your toes.”

The 6 OSS/OSW is inserted into the decision-making process of our flying operations, assisting with planning and entrusted by leadership to keep our planes, pilots, and personnel safe from harm, ensuring we are able to deliver unmatched air refueling worldwide.