World War II veteran from Madison recognized for weather satellite research

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MADISON – It’s hard to imagine a time when the weather was top secret.

Long before The Weather Channel, before weather apps on smart phones and up-to-the-minute Doppler radar at the click of a computer, knowing that it was going to be cloudy or rainy in a particular place at a particular time was extremely valuable. in America during the Cold War.

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Thomas Haig accepts a plaque honoring his pioneering work in the development of weather satellites at an event in Madison on Wednesday.  Haig, 96, joined the Army Air Corps during World War II to be a pilot, but ended up in the weather division where he led the Air Force program that developed and launched the first weather satellite .

During the 1950s, when the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik kicked off the space race, the United States and the USSR began launching satellites into orbit to spy on each other. But the cloudy skies effectively threw a curtain on the satellite cameras, and the US military quickly realized that weather reports needed improvement. And quick.

Enter Tom Haig.

Haig, 96, led a small team of engineers that created and launched the Air Force’s first weather satellites, using the cameras to predict weather conditions days in advance. On Wednesday, the Madison man was recognized for his unique and important work with a plaque depicting a piece of a weather satellite.

“He’s a trailblazer, really a guy who did something for the first time,” said Steve Pluntze, assistant director of remote sensing, Space & Missile Center, Los Angeles Air Force Base.

Retired USAF Colonel Thomas Haig (right) is pictured with comrades while serving in Saipan during World War II.  Haig, 96, joined the Army Air Corps during World War II to be a pilot, but ended up in the weather division where he led the Air Force program that developed and launched the first weather satellite .

Haig and his team’s work was classified, so he couldn’t talk about it for many years.

The weather information they generated was also used to determine when to launch American spacecraft, including the Apollo program, as well as aircraft during Vietnam and the first Gulf War.

A few years after retiring as an Air Force colonel in 1968, Haig came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to become executive director of the Space Science and Engineering Center, where he was instrumental in the development of the world’s first weather system.

Paul Menzel, senior scientist at the Center for Satellite Applications & Research at UW-Madison, said he didn’t know much about Haig’s work with the military when they worked together in college because ” it was part of the world of darkness”.

But he said Haig pioneered not only the instruments needed to capture weather data, but also how to display the information to the public in an easily understandable way.

“He figured out how to stabilize the system so it always looked where you wanted it to look,” Menzel said.

Haig volunteered for the Army Air Corps during World War II after President Franklin Roosevelt announced the urgent need for 30,000 pilots. The Ypsilanti, Michigan native wanted to become a pilot but failed the eye exam. He figured he’d go to college instead. But the army had other plans for him.

“They said ‘you belong to us – you’re going to be a meteorological cadet … a meteorologist,'” Haig recalled Wednesday morning after the ceremony at the Madison Club attended by friends and family.

The Army Air Corps “found out they only have 12 meteorologists, and you can’t fly 30,000 planes with just 12 meteorologists,” Haig said.

After training at the Meteorology Instrumentation School in Fort Monmouth, NJ, Haig operated stations in Bermuda and Saipan during World War II that located thunderstorms using direction finders to track lightning. He left the army after the war, but a few years later the army asked him to join. And he was eventually sent to Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific to investigate whether the nuclear bomb explosions were created “after the wind” at the test site. Haig discovered that it didn’t exist.

Then he was assigned to the Air Force’s weather satellite research program, which was declassified decades ago with the information now freely available to the public.

Today, weather information is freely exchanged by many countries and scientists. And the technology that makes it possible to see a five-day forecast at the tap of a phone is “because we said – hey, can we do the weather from space?” said Pluntze.

In the decades since Haig began predicting the weather for spy satellites to see, five weather satellites have been built by the Air Force, four of which have been launched from land. . Officials later decided that the fifth was no longer needed.

Retired US Air Force Col. Thomas Haig received this solar collector from one of the first weather satellites at a rally in his honor Wednesday in Madison.  Haig, 96, joined the Army Air Corps during World War II to be a pilot, but ended up in the weather division where he led the Air Force program that developed and launched the first weather satellite .

When authorities decided to honor Haig for his accomplishments, they chose a small piece of this satellite to attach to a wooden plaque. They pulled out a piece of metal the size of an iPhone 6 that was to be the solar sensor, the gadget that determines the location of the sun because the cameras need to be shielded from harsh sunlight.

They decided that the Weather Satellite Guide should be turned over to the Air Force Weather Satellite Program Guide.

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