Meet one of NOAA's history-making hurricane hunters
Rebecca Waddington piloted not one, but two historic flights for the NOAA Hurricane Hunters, both of which she hopes will inspire others looking for representation in a male-dominated field.
Aircraft commander Rebecca Waddington is no stranger to making history, and this Women’s History Month, she tells AccuWeather what it’s like to fly straight into hurricanes for science.
Rebecca Waddington has flown where no normal pilot dares to soar and made history in the process.
In 2018, Waddington, who was a lieutenant commander, and Captain Kristie Twining flew toward the Hawaii-bound Hurricane Hector in the first NOAA hurricane mission with an all-female flight crew at the helm.
A year later, she was making history once more as part of NOAA's first all-female, three-pilot crew while surveying Hurricane Dorian. This time, she was joined again by Twining as well as Lt. Lindsey Norman.
"To be honest, I didn't even realize that we were making history in that moment," Waddington, now an executive director at NOAA, told AccuWeather On-Air Meteorologist Melissa Costanzer about her first hurricane mission in 2018. "I was so focused on the storm itself."
With a background in meteorology, Waddington hadn't originally planned on becoming a pilot. But then her career shifted when she realized she could combine the two jobs.
"I thought, what better way to research hurricanes than to be in one?" Waddington said.
Lt. Comdr. Rebecca Waddington (left) and Captain Kristie Twining (right) in the cockpit of the Gulfstream IV jet as they flew toward Hurricane Hector in 2018. (NOAA/CDR Brad Fritzler)
The Air Force Reserve "Hurricane Hunters" consists of a group of pilots who fly through and over hurricanes to collect weather data for meteorologists and other scientists for forecasting and research purposes.
The aircraft used by NOAA for these missions include two sturdy Lockheed WP-3D Orion ("P-3") nicknamed "Kermit the Frog" and "Miss Piggy," and one agile Gulfstream IV-SP ("G-IV") nicknamed "Gonzo" after beloved characters from The Muppets.
The Hurricane Hunters use one of the P-3's to fly into the center of the storm while the G-IV collects upper-level atmospheric data around the storm. Waddington flew the latter aircraft on both missions, tasked with dropping data collection devices called "dropsondes" from the aircraft and collecting vital information to be used in research and forecasting.
"These are weather instruments similar to weather balloons that are launched from the ground, but we're launching them from the aircraft," Waddington explained. "So we dropped them from 45,000 feet and it takes about 15 minutes for them to fall to the surface of the ocean."
During those 15 minutes, the dropsonde records wind speed, direction, pressure, temperature and humidity before sending the info back to the plane, where a meteorologist checks the quality of the data.
The Gulfstream IV-SP ("G-IV"), nicknamed "Gonzo," is used to survey hurricanes while flying around 45,000 feet. Here, the crew drops dropsondes to record temperature, wind direction, pressure and humidity data. (Jillian Angeline)
In a male-dominated field, Waddington has also been a part of efforts to encourage younger folks to take the leap and try new opportunities "that maybe they never thought were possible."
This includes attending the Women in Aviation Conference as a part of NOAA and participating in Girls in Aviation Day at the agency's home base in Florida's Lakeland Linder International Airport.
"I think in any field, it's great to have a diversity of thought, diversity of experience, and women are still a minority in aviation and in STEM in general," Waddington said. "I think the more they see [people who are] representative of them, the more that interest will be."
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