Face of Defense: Weather Airman Overcomes Lightning Strike
By Air Force Senior Master Sgt. George Thompson
386th Air Expeditionary Wing
SOUTHWEST ASIA, May 13, 2013 A weather airman who issues warnings when lightning strikes take place within five miles of an air base here knows the danger. He’s a lightning-strike survivor.
Air Force Senior Airman Erik White poses next to a newly installed portable Doppler radar at an air base in Southwest Asia, May 4, 2013. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Austin Knox
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Air Force Senior Airman Erik White, a 386th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron weather journeyman, was taking pictures when he was struck by lightning as a thunderstorm rolled in while he was stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.
He suffered second- and third-degree burns from his knee to his foot, but he was lucky. According to the National Weather Service, lightning has killed 9,235 people in the United States since the agency started tracking fatalities in 1940.
"It gave me a strong understanding of how powerful and how dangerous weather can be," White said. "I always tell people, of all of our 'big boy warnings' like tornadoes, damaging winds and hail, I think 'Lightning within five [miles]' is the most important, because lightening kills more people every year."
White's recovery included more than two months of convalescent leave and an early end to his amateur weather photography career. He still feels the effects of that electrifying day, he said.
"I have some nerve damage in my leg, and it feels like that tingling feeling when your foot falls asleep," he explained. "It was about a year and a half before I fully got back to normal, but I can tell you, it was a shocking experience."
Understandably, thunderstorms trigger stress for the Bloomfield, Ky., native. "When the thunder roars, I go indoors," he said.
"As a weather guy, you're not 100 percent and the guys that say they are, are wrong," White said.
White joined the Air Force fresh out of high school looking for a better life and to make something of himself.
"I had gotten to the point where nothing was working out," he said. "I had done the whole construction bit and odds-and-ends jobs, and realized the Air Force was a good option."
After graduating from basic training, White spent the next eight months at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., learning about weather.
"Weather is interesting -- it's 90 percent boring and 10 percent all craziness," he said. "There are two aspects of our job: the flying world and the personnel and resource protection aspect."
The flying aspect of White's job provides pilots and crews the information necessary to complete their mission. "We provide flight weather briefs and tell them about any hazards they may encounter en route," he explained.
The other aspect of White's job aims to protect personnel and the resources on the base.
"We provide the 'Lightning within five' warnings that you hear across the loudspeaker to keep people safe," he said. "We also issue certain warnings to help the base commanders make preventive actions like tying down aircraft or to move aircraft."
White is deployed here from Robins Air Force Base, Ga.