Braving the storm: All-female Hurricane Hunter team describes heading into the eyes of storms

First all-female team took flight in 2019 for Hurricane Dorian

Nighttime cohort pilots Cmdr Rebecca Waddington, Lt Cmdr Danielle Varwig, Lt Cmdr Lindsey Norman in front of NOAA Gulfstream IV SP N49RF at the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center in Lakeland FL Aug 24 2020 (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Have you ever been on a flight where the turbulence made the trip a bit bumpy? Well, that is just a small sliver to the conditions hurricane hunters face on the job as they fly into the eye of tropical systems.

But like many science-based careers, women in these roles can be a bit limited compared to their male counterparts.

But for a team of female NOAA Corps pilots, their gender never held them back them from fulfilling their dreams and even earning them a title as the “First all-female crew to pilot a NOAA aircraft during a hurricane mission”.

Commander Rebecca Waddington and Lieutenant Commander Lindsey Norman were two of those pilots into that first all-female flight during the 2019 hurricane season, where their mission took them into Hurricane Dorian.

When asked about how it felt to be part of this historic flight, Commander Norman answered “It was a little more fun. But honestly, it really wasn’t anything that crossed my mind.”

In 2020, Lieutenant Commander Danielle Varwig joined the NOAA Corps, where she flew several missions alongside Waddington and Norman, continuing the all-female crew tradition during the record-breaking hurricane season.

Waddington, Norman and Varwig are three of the six NOAA Corps pilots that fly the only high-altitude jet used to research hurricanes. This high-tech aircraft called the Gulfstream IV (nicknamed the G4), flies around and over developing tropical cyclones. The main goal in these missions is to create a detailed picture of the surrounding upper atmosphere, which then helps forecasters predict a storms track and development.

During hurricane season, the pilots are ready to fly when needed. Between two crews, they run on 12-hour shifts, which depending on the storm, can involve eight-hour long flight missions.

Here is a Q&A on my discussion with Waddington, Norman and Varwig.

What made you become a hurricane hunter?

  • Rebecca Waddington: “Well, for me, it was easy, because I’m a weather nerd at heart. I love storms. And I thought what better way to research storms, then to go and fly into them.”
  • Lindsey Norman: “I’m also admittedly a weather nerd. Storms are really cool, kind of dangerous, but really cool.”
  • Danielle Varwig: “I’m not necessarily a weather nerd, at least to the level of Lindsey and Rebecca. But I have a deep love of science, so doing anything supporting NOAA is definitely helpful. Flying into hurricanes was probably not my first choice. But knowing that the ladies and the rest of the hurricane hunter team has done it for decades, I felt comfortable going ahead and doing it.”

What has been your experience as a woman in a male dominated field? Do you feel as though you faced different obstacles compared to your male counterparts?

  • Rebecca Waddington: “Not necessarily. I think NOAA does a really good job of standardized and everything. And you’re right, it is a male dominated field, and we are a minority, even within NOAA. But we’re treated just the same as our male counterparts. Now when we’re out and about, I have noticed a difference where people just automatically assume I’m one of the scientists or the photographer on the mission and are surprised when they find out that I’m the aircraft commander. And I know that we have so many great female leadership. I mean, our two-star Admiral is a female.  The former administrator of NOAA was Dr. Kathy Sullivan from NASA. And we’ve had these women to look up to. So even though we started off with just a few, we’re getting more and more women and they are incredible.”
  • Lindsey Norman: “I agree with Rebecca. I’ve never felt as though I had any big obstacles in front of me that someone else didn’t already have.”
  • Danielle Varwig: “It’s just really refreshing to have other females there who can kind of empathize with you, with those issues that may affect us more so than the male community.”

What advice do you have for young girls who want to achieve a STEM-based career?

  • Rebecca Waddington: “Go for it. I would tell them that there’s nothing to stop them. And the doors are only closed for the ones that they refuse to walk through.”
  • Lindsey Norman: “You’re usually your own biggest obstacle. So don’t be your own obstacle, just do what you want to do.”
  • Danielle Varwig: “I can’t wait until we get to the day where it’s not a big deal that, there’s the first all-female crew flying or doing anything. Just keep doing what you’re doing. If it’s what you love, then push through, speak up, be heard and it eventually won’t be a big deal. It will just be another person doing their job and loving it.”

Can you share a fun story about one of your all-female missions?

  • Rebecca Waddington: “Well, we can talk about Laura, when all three of us were on that flight together. That one was a little more unique. And it was one of Danielle’s first flights. We were flying off the southeastern tip of Cuba. And this time, Laura was still a tropical storm and we were already diverting off track just to stay away from the major turbulence. And at one point, we just got in the muck and we had St. Elmo’s Fire going across the windscreen. Which if you’ve never seen that, I don’t recommend seeing. It’s like horizontal purple lightning across the windscreen, I was sitting in the jump seat Danielle was in the right Lindsey was flying at the time. Lindsey’s hand went up at the same time that I yelled out left! So that was one of the more adventurous flights for us. But we’ve got a well trained crew. We’ve got meteorologists in the back that help us navigate and just the three of us coordinated together we’re able to simultaneously talk with air traffic control and get us out of the danger zone and return home safely.”

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