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In Memoriam: Dr. James “Doc” McFadden

Colleagues, family, and friends mourn the passing on Sept. 28, 2020 of Dr. James “Doc” McFadden, a dedicated public servant who, over the course of his 57 year career, has immeasurably influenced the evolution of airborne data collection at NOAA. Dr. McFadden most recently served as chief of programs for the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center (AOC), where he was responsible for coordinating all research projects on NOAA’s aircraft, including the agency’s Gulfstream IV-SP and two Lockheed WP-3D Orion hurricane hunter aircraft.
Over the course of Dr. McFadden’s career, he has played a key role in coordinating thousands of projects on more than two dozen aircraft of various types, makes, and models, including helicopters, seaplanes, fixed-wing light aircraft, heavy multi-engine propeller aircraft, and high-altitude jets.
After entering the civil service in 1962 and completing his Ph.D. in meteorology he began working as a research scientist in 1965 with the U.S. Weather Bureau’s Sea-Air Interaction Laboratory. From that day forward, he has been in the critical path for every aircraft acquisition, new scientific instrument developed and fielded, every major facility move, and every organizational restructuring of NOAA’s aerial research program, including the transition from the Research Flight Facility to the Office of Aircraft Operations, known today as the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center.
“I first had the pleasure of working with Dr. McFadden when I started flying for NOAA in 2002,” said Rear Adm. Michael Silah, director of the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps and NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. “He had a wealth of knowledge and unparalleled experience, which I relied upon both as a pilot and later as the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center’s commanding officer. His leadership, dedication, professionalism, and many contributions to airborne data collection and atmospheric research cannot be overstated. He will be greatly missed.”
In addition to his significant contributions to meteorology and the understanding of tropical cyclones, he holds the Guinness World Record for longest career as a hurricane hunter. Dr. McFadden flew his first mission to Hurricane Inez on October 6, 1966 and his final flight on September 22, 2019, at the age of 85, into Hurricane Jerry. He flew through more than 50 hurricanes on various hurricane hunter aircraft during his career, passing through the eye a total of 590 times.
“During Doc’s tenure he’s been a key player in the nation’s hurricane forecast improvement program, one that has matured from hand-drawn charts with coastal residents receiving little to no warning of an impending storm to modern forecasts and forecast products that afford a very precise segment of coastal residents five to seven days advance notice,” said Cmdr. Chris Sloan, AOC’s current commanding officer.
Dr. McFadden was also passionate about education and outreach, always taking time to speak with and mentor students and engage with the public and the media during hurricane awareness tours, air shows, and other events.
Earlier this year, Dr. McFadden recorded an oral history interview about his career as part of the celebration of NOAA’s 50th anniversary. You can listen to his interview and learn more about his life and career here:…