Air Force forecaster found clear skies for shuttle launches and special ops

CHICAGO -- You won’t see his weather forecasts on TV or read about them online, but a man with roots in Kankakee County has made some very important predictions.

After graduating from Momence High School in 1982, Lt. Col. Barry Hunte spent a year in college and then decided to do something different. Hunte enlisted as an avionics technician in the U.S. Air Force 33 years ago. He says he did that for only six years before they began to retire the F-4 planes he was working on.

“Weather was something that me and a buddy were like, ‘That sounds interesting. Let’s jump into weather’,” Hunte said.

That’s how a man from Kankakee County wound up in Florida forecasting 15 different shuttle launches for NASA. Hunte says every second of the forecast had to be accurate. Even decades later, he remembers one that wasn’t.

“They’re in the countdown, and your weather forecast is wrong, and they have to stop and start over. [It] was the first time I was like, 'Wow, we just hosed that up,'” Hunte remembered.

Hunte says the shuttle must avoid clouds at launch because passing through them can trigger lightning and rain drops like bullets that can damage the orbiter. Similar precautions were taken on ferry flights. So as the shuttle rode on the back of a 747, the Lt. Colonel moved ahead looking for sunshine in a game of atmospheric hide-and-seek.

“We would fly in a lead plane up in the cockpit area looking for clear holes to get it to its destination. Make sure it didn’t go through any clouds or within 100 miles of any moisture while it was flying,” Hunte recalls.

He says the space shuttle missions were the most exciting to him, but they didn’t make headlines like one in April 2003. Army Private Jessica Lynch was captured during the Iraq invasion and Hunte’s weather team was on station when U.S. Special Forces operations rescued the P.O.W. from a hospital in southern Iraq.

“You have an individual who’s really relying on you. I mean in the whole mission everyone is relying on you, but in this case it’s like, wow we’ve got to get this right, because everybody’s ready to make this happen. We don’t want to get something started and then all of a sudden have to stop and it blows the whole thing,” Hunte said.

Lynch became the first U.S. P.O.W. rescued since Vietnam - and the first woman ever - but Hunte’s service in the Middle East didn’t end there. His forecasts were used during attacks on Iraq and drone strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan. His small part in the larger war on terror.

“I care about what’s happening 20-30 miles away, but i’m really looking for that five mile circle around the flight line of an Air Force base or an Army unit that we’re supporting,” he said.

Hunte knows the next generation of soldiers and airmen will be supported as well, since he spends time as an instructor and commander himself at the Air Force Weather School in Biloxi, Mississippi.

In retirement, the Lt. Col. plans to spend more time with this family. And he’s forecast something he won’t be doing: working as a TV weather man.

"I love weather and I love doing it in the Air Force. It’s been great to me, but when I leave the military I’m pretty sure I’m not going to do weather.”

Lt. Col. Hunte will return to Kankakee County next week for a retirement ceremony at Kasler Veterans Memorial Park in Momence on Friday, Sept. 15.