Naval Weather Service Association (NWSA)



An association of Aerographers & Mates,
Meteorologists & Oceanographers


Robertson P. Dinsmore


The ocean weather station idea originated in the early days of radio communications and trans-oceanic aviation.  As early as 1921, the Director of the French Meteorological Service proposed establishing a stationary weather observing ship in the North Atlantic to benefit merchant shipping and the anticipated inauguration of trans-Atlantic air service.  Up to then, temporary stations had been set up for special purposes, such as the U.S. NAVY flying boat NC-4 trans-Atlantic flight in 1919 and the ill-fated Amelia Earhart Pacific flight in 1937.


The loss of a Pan American Airways B377 aircraft in 1938 due to weather on a trans-Pacific flight prompted the Coast Guard and the Weather Bureau to begin tests of upper air observations using instrumented balloons.  Their success resulted in a recommendation by


Commander E. H. Smith of the International Ice Patrol (and future Director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) for a network of ships in the Atlantic Ocean.


World War II brought about a dramatic increase in trans-Atlantic air navigation, and in January 1940 President Roosevelt established the "Atlantic Weather Observation Service," using Coast Guard cutters with U.S. Weather Bureau observers.  Most flights at this time were using southern routes.  On February 10, 1940, the 327-foot cutters BIBB and DUANE occupied Ocean Stations 1 and 2 - the forerunners of Stations D and E.


With the U.S. entering the war, Coast Guard cutters were diverted to anti-submarine duties; and the weather stations were taken over by a motley assortment of vessels ranging from converted yachts to derelict freighters, mostly Coast Guard manned.  As trans-Atlantic air traffic continued to increase, so did the number of weather and plane guard stations.  The role of weather during the Battle of the Coral Sea and trans-Pacific flights resulted in stations being set up in the Pacific Ocean.  At the service's peak, there were 22 Atlantic and 24 Pacific Ocean weather stations.


At war's end, the U.S. NAVY intended to discontinue weather ship operations, but pressure from several sources resulted instead in the establishment of a permanent peacetime system of 13 stations. Costs of the program were shared by the nations operating trans-oceanic aircraft.


A typical weather patrol was 21 days on-station.  A "station" was a 210-mile grid of 10-mile squares, each with alphabetic designations.  The center square, which the ship usually occupied, was "OS," for on-station.  A radio beacon transmitted the ship's location.  Over flying aircraft would check in with the ship and receive position, course and speed by radar tracking, along with weather data.  Surface weather observations were transmitted every three hours and upper-air data at six-hour intervals.  Observers launched balloons with radiosonde transmitters and radar reflectors, which provided temperatures and humidities aloft plus wind direction and speed to perhaps 50,000 feet.


Oceanographic observations were recommended for weather ships almost from the start.  Beginning in 1945 and continuing to the end, U.S. ships made bathythermograph (B/T) observations that today comprise the largest B/T archive in existence.  Many special-purpose, short-term programs were carried out with oceanographers frequently riding the ships.  In addition to serving as weather sources and aids to navigation, the weather ships occasionally rescued downed aircraft and foundering ships.  Dramatic weather station rescues include the Bermuda Sky Queen in 1947 (Station C), Pan Am 943 in 1956 (Station N), and SS AMBASSADOR (Station E) in 1964.


By 1970 new jet aircraft were coming to rely less on fixed ocean stations, and satellites were beginning to provide weather data.  In 1974 the Coast Guard announced plans to terminate the U. S. station, and in 1977 the last weather ship was replaced by a newly-developed buoy.  The international program ended when the last ship departed Station M in 1981

(Captain Dinsmore commanded the weather ship USCGC COOK INLET.  During his 28 years in the Coast Guard he served in four North Atlantic weather ships.)


(Note by NWSA Historian:  There will be a follow-up to the above narrative next quarter, in which we will document some typical experiences of Aerographer's Mates serving in weather ships.)