On August 5, 2018, NOAA Corps officers Capt. Kristie Twining and Lt. Cmdr. Rebecca Waddington became the first all-female team to pilot a NOAA aircraft during a hurricane mission. Aboard NOAA’s Gulfstream IV-SP, they flew around Hurricane Hector near Hawaii, dropping atmospheric monitoring devices called dropsondes to collect temperature, pressure, wind speed, wind direction and humidity data--all critical to developing NOAA’s hurricane forecasts. We spoke to them about how they both became NOAA Corps officers and NOAA Hurricane Hunter pilots.
Please tell us a little bit about your background.
Capt. Twining: I began my career as a NOAA Corps Commissioned Officer over 19 years ago. Having a desire to serve my country and work in the field of science, I found this to be the perfect fit. I started out serving on a NOAA research vessel and was accepted into the NOAA flight program 16 years ago flying first on small aircraft and working my way up to aircraft commander on the Gulfstream IV-SP “hurricane hunter.” When I am not flying, I am the chief of the Aircraft Maintenance Branch at the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center in Lakeland, Florida. I enjoy mentoring young women, encouraging them to study math and sciences and never accept the sky as their limit. I have a Bachelor of Science in marine biology and a Master of Science in project management.
Lt. Cmdr. Waddington: I was born in California, and lived there throughout college where I received a bachelor's degree in meteorology from San Jose State University. I volunteered at the National Weather Service forecast office in Monterey, California, during my junior and senior years. After completing Basic Officer Training Class, my first NOAA Corps assignment was aboard the NOAA Ship Ka’Imimoana. Following that assignment, I moved to Florida to work in the storm surge unit at the National Hurricane Center, which was where I came across the opportunity to apply for the NOAA aviation program. I was accepted and started flying NOAA’s Beechcraft King Air 350CER in 2010. During my first flight assignment I went back to shore and earned a master’s degree in aviation science. After serving a second shore assignment at the Aviation Weather Center, I was selected to fly the Gulfstream IV-SP.
How did you first find out about the NOAA Corps and what made you want to join?
Capt. Twining: Immediately after I graduated from college, I moved to Alaska to work as a fisheries observer aboard commercial fishing vessels. This is a NOAA-mandated program for fisheries management. I then obtained a maritime captain’s license qualifying me to operate vessels in the near coastal regions. I learned more about NOAA and fell in love with the NOAA mission and the NOAA Corps officer role in that mission. I wanted to serve my country and support a science and environmental causes. It was the perfect fit. I was commissioned as a NOAA Corps officer in July of 1999 and couldn’t imagine a better life-changing decision.
Lt. Cmdr. Waddington: While in undergrad, I considered continuing on to get a master’s degree in oceanography. Before committing to a master’s program, I thought it would be best to test out my sea legs and make sure I enjoyed working on a ship. I did an internet search for oceanography volunteers and came across an opportunity to volunteer as a scientist on NOAA Ship Albatross IV. I enjoyed the work so much, I returned the following year aboard NOAA Ship Delaware II. On each trip I spoke with the scientists, crew, and officers and learned about the NOAA Corps. I was offered a full-time position with the National Weather Service, but ultimately decided I wasn’t ready to sit in an office. I applied for the NOAA Corps since it combined my love of meteorology, oceanography and patriotic service.
Prior to joining the NOAA Corps, what was your history in aviation?
Capt. Twining: I grew up on the approach path to a major Air Force base in upstate New York. Fascinated by aviation, I never envisioned an opportunity for me to find my way in. I didn’t think I could. Twenty years later, I learned about the NOAA aviation program at our initial Basic Officer Training Class. I knew it was a far reaching goal given the fact I did not have any flying experience but during our winter in port periods while assigned to a NOAA research vessel, I took flying lessons at a Navy flying club on Whidbey Island in northwest Washington. I applied after I received my private pilot’s licence and was accepted. It was a dream come true.
Lt. Cmdr. Waddington: My father is an aeronautical engineer so I have been around aircraft all my life, but I never had any intention of becoming a pilot. I joined the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps anticipating a career at sea. When the opportunity to fly arose, I thought of it as a new challenge. Plus, my love of meteorology kept me interested in the hurricane hunter aircraft.
Can you discuss your experience in Hurricane Lane? How did it compare to other hurricanes you’ve flown?
Capt. Twining: Pacific Island storms have always intrigued me because the forecast and subsequent evacuation is so different from mainland America. People cannot just get in their vehicles and drive away from the storm’s path. They are somewhat isolated. I think that Lane was unique because as the data from our aircraft helped the models better forecast the track, we realized the track was going to impact the base of our operations in Honolulu, Oahu. This meant that in addition to flying our missions to protect the public, we also needed to consider the safety and evacuation of our crew and aircraft in our plans.
Lt. Cmdr. Waddington: Hurricane Lane was only the second storm that I surveyed. Hurricane Hector was the first. The intensity of Hector was much more concentrated in the center. In Hurricane Lane, we encountered more convection in the outer rainbands. The biggest difference I noticed was in the public interaction on the ground. Since Hector stayed south of the Hawaiian Islands it didn’t draw nearly as much attention. As Lane drew near, the public became more focused on the forecasts and certainly noticed us when we returned to the hotel in our flight suits. Being recognized afforded us the chance to reach out to the public, and make sure they were prepared for the potential impacts.
What has been the most powerful storm you’ve flown in?
Capt. Twining: Hurricane Maria and Irma were the most powerful and most emotional. As we were flying these storms, we knew the path was headed for our homes, our families, and our fellow Americans. This created a sense of ominous quiet in the aircraft as we flew over the Caribbean and Puerto Rico knowing the impact to these helpless communities was imminent. I was proud to be able to provide the data that helped keep people safe but also felt sorry that they had to go through such a hardship. Also, we had to evacuate from our home base in Lakeland, Florida, to keep the aircraft safe and to continue our mission if needed. We left our families behind and hunkered down in New Orleans for three days.
Lt. Cmdr. Waddington: I can say with certainty that the strongest of the two I surveyed was Hurricane Lane. While flying the King Air, I conducted post-storm damage assessment surveys following several strong hurricanes. The flood damage from Hurricane Harvey was the most extensive I have ever witnessed. Flying post-Irma was very emotional for our crew as we initially had to operate out of New Orleans since it was difficult to find airfields in Florida with power. We flew countless post-storm surveys throughout the state before even knowing how our own homes had fared.
Have you experienced an in-flight issue during your career that your training helped you overcome?
Capt. Twining: I was once crossing the country in the De Havilland DHC-6-300 Twin Otter and we ran into low-level freezing rain and immediately iced the entire aircraft. Our airspeed diminished by 40 knots and we were not able to keep the ice from accumulating. Our de-icing capabilities were inadequate so we needed to act. Fortunately, we are trained to deal with these type of situations and to take them very seriously. In that instance, we diverted and landed at an airport right under our flight path. This was a good move. The ice chunks were falling off the plane as we landed and there was still ice on the landing gear.
Lt. Cmdr. Waddington: I’ve been very fortunate to not have any noteworthy issues in flight! I can say that the hardest part of flying for me personally was crosswind landings. I struggled with these, but took an opportunity to fly with an instructor pilot at MacDill Air Force Base when there was a 20 knot crosswind on the runway. It was a challenging training flight, which ultimately taught me a great deal and bolstered my confidence. Later that same year, we encountered a crosswind landing following a mission flight. I was able to apply the tactics I learned on that training flight to guide us to a safe landing. It felt good to look back how well my training had prepared me and see how far I had come.
Do you believe that being a woman in aviation and uniformed service has made your experience unique? If so, how?
Capt. Twining: In some ways yes, but I’ve been in primarily male-dominated careers all of my life, from fishing boats in Alaska to studying diesel engine technology. I haven’t always had great experiences as a woman but certainly my time in NOAA has been extremely positive. I think the professionalism of the other uniformed service members and the civilian workforce has been exemplary. It is unique because people recognize me always as a “female” aviator, not just an aviator. They immediately come to a different realization or conclusion about me than they would with a male pilot. It’s been interesting to watch over the years. I hope to break barriers for other women interested in a career in aviation.
Lt. Cmdr. Waddington: Unfortunately, women remain a minority in aviation, uniformed services, and most STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] fields for that matter. I often get asked if I am the photographer or scientist in the plane and people are surprised when I tell them I am the pilot. I think women naturally have a different leadership and thinking style than their male peers and that brings different perspectives to everyday tasks. In NOAA, and particularly at the Aircraft Operations Center, we are a small tight knit group who train and spend significant travel time together. We rely so extensively on crew resource management in the aircraft that the camaraderie carries over into all aspects of our work. I recently completed Homeward Bound, a global year-long leadership program aimed at elevating women in STEM. It was remarkable to learn about how gender roles have affected women from around the world, regardless of the STEM field in which they work.
What are your ultimate goals in aviation?
Capt. Twining: I want to constantly learn and improve and mentor new pilots to fill my shoes. Unfortunately, I can’t be here forever in NOAA. I have over 19 years of service but even after this chapter is complete, I will continue to fly in some capacity. I’m trying to convince my husband to let me buy an airplane so we can fly all over the country. The jury is still out on that one.
Lt. Cmdr. Waddington: I certainly plan to complete a twenty-year career with the NOAA Corps and continue flying NOAA’s missions through the end. After retiring from NOAA Corps, there are too many options to make a definitive choice now. In the near-term, my goal is to get the word out and encourage more young women to live their dreams as a pilot.
If you could turn back the clock and do anything different, what would you change?
Capt. Twining: Nothing. Every day I am in awe of how fortunate I am to have achieved what I have achieved and to have the opportunities to allow me to have such a tremendous career. It is an honor to impact the lives of others in a positive manner and I never take that for granted. I couldn’t imagine doing it differently.
Lt. Cmdr. Waddington: Absolutely nothing. I can play the “what if” game all day long, but at the end of the day I am extremely happy with where I am and what I’ve done to get here. I’ve met some incredible friends and inspirational leaders along the way. I’ve seen and done things, such as diving under a buoy in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, observing penguins in Antarctica, and flying over a Category 5 hurricane, that not many can relate to. I consider myself extremely fortunate and only hope to become an inspiration to others as they look to start their careers.
--Contributed by Brandon Baylor
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