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NOAA Corps Officer Profile: Commander Danielle Varwig

A NOAA Corps officer in a blue flightsuit standing on the stairs to a NOAA jet

NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps officers pilot and navigate NOAA's high specialized environmental data-gathering aircraft, including the agency's fleet of "hurricane hunter" planes. They also serve in a variety of other roles in support of the agency's science, service and stewardship mission. In this NOAA Corps officer profile, we hear from pilot Cmdr. Danielle Varwig about her career journey.

Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in New York City. Specifically Far Rockaway, Queens and Flatbush, Brooklyn. Because I grew up in one of the most influential and culturally diverse cities in the world, I developed a strong desire to travel to the places that the tourists and immigrant families came from. I just knew there was more to the Melting Pot and had to see more.

Where did you go to school and in what subject did you get your degree(s)?

Aside from my love of travel and cultural exploration, I also had a passion for the sciences. Perhaps it started in elementary school where my field trips were to some of the most amazing places in the country, such as the New York Hall of Science and the Hayden Planetarium. In middle school, I was particularly enamored by the launch of the Sojourner Mars Rover, which sparked my desire to build robots of my own. In high school, I chose to attend a technical school in Brooklyn specifically so I could study pre-engineering. I eventually went to Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania, and obtained my Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering.

What inspired you to become a NOAA Corps officer?

While in college, I learned that my itch for travel was stronger than my desire to design and build. My father encouraged me to join the U.S. Air Force and become a pilot. He was right. Being a pilot was a great way to meld my interest in mechanical engineering with my affinity to travel. I flew four different aircraft types during my career and traveled to countries I never would have imagined to visit on my own. 

When I eventually discovered the NOAA Corps, I was 12 years into a successful active duty Air Force career, though in search of other opportunities to continue serving. I learned of the NOAA Corps through a friend of a friend who had, at the time, been a Corps officer for a few years after transferring from the military himself. 

He shared with me the benefit of continuing my career as a pilot but in support of an incredible selection of way-cool scientific missions; missions on a completely different level than those I completed in the military. He detailed the aviation assignment itself and how it was similar to my Air Force way of life, the operational locations aviators frequented that were nowhere near the war zones I came to know so well, and the phenomenal collection of bright scientists he'd learned a wealth of information from. For me, it was a no-brainer. I would get to continue to fly and therefore travel and continue to serve, but for science! 

Because it is so small and niche, the NOAA Corps is one of those hidden gems that most people only hear about through word of mouth if they don't happen to see a servicemember or a NOAA aircraft or vessel in the "wild." I am so fortunate to have found out about the NOAA Corps and I am proud to continue my service to the country in a whole new way. 

What do you do as a NOAA Corps officer? 

I am a Gulfstream IV-SP (G-IV) aircraft commander stationed at the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center (AOC) in Lakeland, Florida. The primary missions on the G-IV include atmospheric rivers during the winter months and hurricane surveillance and research during hurricane season. On these missions, I command a crew of approximately 6-8, on average, and ensure safe execution of approximately 8-hours-long data-collection and analysis flights. 

Aside from piloting the aircraft, I conduct preflight and post-flight duties, including: liaising with our programs section to determine the principal investigator’s requirements and how the G-IV can specifically accomplish them; working with our maintenance team to ensure all requirements are met; and hosting a briefing with the meteorologists, pilots and onboard engineers and technicians to review the upcoming flight. 

When I am not flying, I am the deputy chief of the aircraft maintenance branch. I am second in command of the largest branch at AOC with approximately 40 mostly civilian personnel and 10 NOAA aircraft. I assist in managing scheduled and unscheduled aircraft maintenance actions for aircraft and ground support equipment. I am the primary budget manager, overseeing not only the largest budget at AOC, but also multiple contracts for aircraft maintenance and components, maintenance publications and support requirements. 

What was one of your favorite missions or experiences? 

I will never be able to beat my very first hurricane mission as my all time favorite experience. Firstly, the mission was the day before my wedding anniversary in the unforgettable year 2020 so the date will always stick with me. Secondly, the two other pilots with me were women! Overall, I wouldn't say there was anything particularly wild or interesting about that particular flight opposed to any others in my career other than the fact that it was my first time flying TOWARD a tropical cyclone. 

I felt all kinds of feelings that day, with the most prominent being excited and anxious. It was the first time since I started learning to fly that I felt that way before and it was like a fire had rekindled inside of me. The unbelievable professionalism, passion, and unmistakable calm that the entire team had throughout helped reinforce that our methods are safe and our team is trained well even if things got a little uncomfortable. I'll add that regular deployments to tropical destinations for the sake of science isn't too bad. I definitely love that.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a NOAA Corps officer? 

If you want to serve your country and get almost the same benefits as our Department of Defense brethren, the NOAA Corps is the way to go! So with that, follow us on your preferred social media platform! Come see us or request a chat with one of us! Immerse yourself in our world and ask questions, our doors are open and we are eager to share our individual experiences. 

What do you like to do outside of work? 

I have an extremely supportive husband and we have two amazing children, so I adore spending time with them. They refill my happiness jar better and faster than anything else can. I love to travel, especially in my spare time. Whenever I can get the opportunity, I drag my family along with me to a new place I haven't been to before.

What is your favorite aircraft and why? 

While I enjoy flying the fast, sleek, and long-legged Gulfstream, I truly think that the DHC-6 Twin Otter is my favorite platform. The missions are very diverse–from spotting incredible marine mammals, skirting around wildfires, and overflying unbelievable landscapes–and cover a lot of ground across the contiguous U.S. and Canada. Because they fly low and slow, those aboard these missions truly get to enjoy the finer details of the Earth below. From a pilot's perspective, it would take me back to the unforgettable excitement and joy I felt when I flew my very first flight in a Cessna 172 at University Park Airport, Pennsylvania.