A NOAA aviator’s view from the cockpit
Thirty-thousand feet is the altitude at which many pilots live. NOAA aviators, however, generally prefer a front-row seat over the nosebleed section. Five hundred feet above the ground is where one particular NOAA flier, NOAA Corps officer and pilot Lieutenant Junior Grade Kevin Doremus, prefers to cruise the skies.
Doremus’ testimony of how he chose a career with the NOAA Corps, one of the nation’s seven uniformed services, isn’t much different from that of other officers. Once he learned of the NOAA Corps and the work their aviators do—from hurricane hunting to surveying marine mammals—he was hooked.“Although I went into college thinking that I wanted to fly for the airlines, I quickly learned that there was much more to the aviation world outside of flying an airliner,” said Doremus.
His time at the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) allowed him to earn his pilot’s ratings and learn of a career in flying he never knew of. As someone whose passion for science matched his passion for aviation, NOAA was a perfect fit. Through an internship during his junior year in college at the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center, Doremus learned the ins and outs of the life of a NOAA Corps officer and it was a no brainer. “I was instantly hooked and knew that this was the perfect job for me,” he said.
Immediately following his graduation from FIT, Doremus applied to join the NOAA Corps and, once accepted, was off to Basic Officer Training Class (BOTC) in New London, Connecticut.
“At BOTC, you will learn how to be an officer and will learn maritime and nautical skills, with an emphasis on shipboard operations,” said Doremus. After completing a three-year sea tour, NOAA Corps officers are able to apply for an aviation slot.
NOAA pilots fly a variety of missions from gathering data on developing tropical cyclones to measuring the moisture content of snow. All of these missions have similarities. Doremus prefers the snow survey missions for the up-close view of the landscape they provide.
“All the flying is done down low at 500 feet above the ground and at a speed of about 120 knots,” said Doremus. The DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter and Gulfstream Turbo Commander AC-695A are the primary platforms used for snow surveys.
These highly specialized aircraft of the NOAA fleet allow NOAA pilots to navigate the close quarters they encounter. “The climb performance of the Turbo Commander allows us to survey in much more difficult terrain,” said Doremus, “The two very powerful turboprop engines that we have allow us to safely climb out from the valleys that we are flying in.” These two engines even generate enough power to allow the aircraft to function with just one.
The work that goes into these snow survey flights begins well before the engines are revved. Flight plans are discussed and finalized well ahead of time, and once the day draws near there are other planning phases. The night before a survey mission, weather forecasts are thoroughly checked and flight routes are carefully mapped to avoid unsafe areas. Task lists the morning of a flight include a weather briefing, weight and balance check, alerting the FAA of flight plans and an interior and exterior preflight check. After completing these tasks along with a final mission briefing it’s time to take to the friendly skies.
Through the course of this four hour flight, challenges can arise, whether it’s an unexpected object in the flight path or a systems issue. However, the training of the NOAA pilots, pre-flight preparation and the technology of the equipment enables them to overcome such challenges in the air.
“Before every flight, we thoroughly brief the lines and identify any hazards, to include towers/power lines, nearby airports, and terrain,” said Doremus. “Most of the initial and recurrent flight training that we do in the aircraft is simulating various system malfunctions. We practice a lot with flying on only one engine, which the Turbo Commander does well.”
Cold-weather and water survival exercises along with in-flight failure simulators also prepare the flight crew for any and everything.
NOAA pilots have the unique opportunity to be able to serve the nation while at the same time making their dreams a reality. “I will never forget my first Alaska snow survey season,” said Doremus. “We got to see some absolutely stunning scenery, up close and personal.”