Hurricane hunters fly aircraft above, around, and into hurricanes and other tropical storms to gather critical information about how the storm is developing and where it’s going.
Many different specialists work together to make this happen. For example, pilots fly the aircraft, meteorologists safely guide us to where we need to go, electronics technicians operate data systems and fix any instrumentation issues, and mechanics keep the aircraft flying. It takes a whole team of people to make sure we’re safely and effectively conducting our missions.
I’m an aerospace engineer, so I help determine where and how we should install scientific instruments onto our aircraft. A lot of my job is coordinating with the other scientists to determine the best solution that will keep us flying safely while gathering data.
On the aircraft, my job is to operate data systems and deploy expendable data-gathering instruments. These devices include dropsondes, which are essentially weather balloons in reverse: they’re released at specified altitudes and fall to the earth, instead of rising upward, to collect atmospheric data.
The pilots, meteorologists, and scientists plan out how we’ll get to the storm. The engineers, mechanics, and technicians ready the aircraft and make sure all of our data systems are working properly before takeoff.
Preparing for a hurricane mission or similar operation requires a couple of hours, typically followed by 8 hours in the air. We’ll fly up to 6 days in a row before taking a down day, so the pace can be pretty demanding during storm season.
There’s risk involved with any flight into a storm, but our teams spend a lot of time training and preparing to mitigate those risks as much as possible. Flights can be exciting, but they can also be mentally and physically exhausting.
As we get to the storm, everyone straps into their seats and makes sure the things around them are secure. Even though the ride can be rough, we’re collecting important data throughout the flight. My second flight into Hurricane Ian was the worst I’ve been on: a lot of sustained turbulence in a violent storm.
We fly a lot of different types of projects. For example, Atmospheric River Reconnaissance is a big program that we support; it involves collecting data for improved forecasts of these powerful storms. We also support missions tracking thunderstorms across the Midwest, using radar onboard to study tornadoes.
The operational data we collect goes to the National Hurricane Center and is incorporated into forecast models. The more accurate and up to date the data is, the better the forecasts will be. We also work closely with the Hurricane Research Division to collect research data that’s used to improve the models for future storms.
There’s immense value with what we call in-situ data, the data collected directly from the environment. Remote sensing, such as satellites, can only provide so much information.
I have a bachelor of science (B.S.) degree in aerospace engineering. My first job out of college was as a flight test engineer at a naval air station. I spent part of my time working with twin-engine fighter aircraft and another part with single-engine, all-weather fighter aircraft. I was there for about a year, but I wanted to do something more science-focused with my career.
I knew I wanted to keep working for the federal government and happened upon an opening for an aerospace engineer with NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). I knew NOAA monitored and reported weather, but I knew nothing about hurricane hunting. I have a long-term goal of being an astronaut, and the advice I got from an astronaut was: “Don’t sit behind a desk.” This job gets me out from behind a desk at least part of the time.
It also sounded exciting and like a grand adventure, which it certainly has turned out to be. Six-and-a-half years into it, it’s hard to imagine working anywhere else, short of becoming an astronaut. I intend to keep serving the public in this role for the foreseeable future.
Studying engineering and being interested in NOAA’s mission is a good start. Be enthusiastic, and be kind.
There’s a lot to keep up with. We have nine aircraft flying a variety of missions year-round, and a lot of planning and preparation are required to make sure that each project is successful.
The people. Everyone, no matter their role, is dedicated to the mission of safely collecting scientific data, whether that be for hurricanes, marine mammals, or something else. Everyone I work with is talented, helpful, and kind.
I love this job! It’s challenging, exciting, and fulfilling.
Patricia Tate, "Hurricane hunter," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2023.