Weather on the fly, and through a hurricane's eye

The highs and lows of being a flight meteorologist

Jessica Williams.

For NOAA flight meteorologist Jessica Williams, a "day in the office" sometimes means sitting at this computer, flying 40,000 feet above the ground. There, she oversees the safety of the air mission and ensures that the meteorological data is accurate.

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During big storms, when most people take cover inside, Jessica Williams can be found 40,000 feet up in her weather forecast “office” in the sky. In this interview, Williams gives us an inside look at her high-flying job as a flight meteorologist onboard a NOAA Hurricane Hunter aircraft.

What were some of the steps you took to become a flight meteorologist onboard a Hurricane Hunter?

I was always fascinated by weather and I also love flying. I was in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps program in college, and they needed meteorologists, so I got an intense background in aviation meteorology after being commissioned into the Air Force.

What are some of your responsibilities?

Prior to boarding, you look at a long list of weather information products (both real-time and forecast), and you prepare the crew for the weather and potential hazards you’re going to encounter on the mission.

Once onboard, you need to make sure all the meteorological instruments are up and running before you take off, so you look at the data while you’re still on the ground.

NOAA's aircraft.

NOAA's aircraft, including this G-IV, allow meteorologists to fly into and around tropical cyclones where they collect data to produce forecasts. 

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And after you’ve taken off?

The flight meteorologist oversees the flight. Once we’re up in the air, our No. 1 focus is safety, so we’re looking at the radars to make sure the plane and crew will be safe – there’s a radar that looks out ahead, another one that gives a 360-degree picture around the aircraft, and a third that looks behind us.

Our second priority is being the communicator between the pilot and the research scientists onboard. The research scientists tell us what information they want to gather. If what they want to do is safe, we let the pilot know where to go. The aircraft commander has the ultimate say as to where we go, and he/she takes input from the flight meteorologist.

The third priority is ensuring that the data is accurate and that it gets off the airplane to eventually be used by other meteorologists and scientists.

What instruments do you use for your forecasts?

We rely on the sensors onboard the aircraft, like temperature, dew point, wind speed, and wind direction, because they tell us if we’re approaching an eye wall. We also use dropsondes ─ airborne instruments we literally drop into both the eye wall and eye of a hurricane to collect measurements closer to the surface.

hurricane hunter badges.

After Hurricane Hunter aircraft fly into tropical cyclones, they receive badges commemorating their missions. In this picture, Jessica Williams points to the badges from 77 different tropical cyclones and 36 different countries and territories proudly displayed on this NOAA WP-3D.

Download here (Credit: NOAA)

What does it feel like to fly through the eye of a tropical cyclone or hurricane?

It’s exciting, but it’s sometimes a high-stress environment. At the same time, I feel comfortable for the most part because of my own experience and the collective experience of the 10 or 15 other people on the plane. Physically, you feel the turbulence due to wind shear and convection, and you hear the precipitation because it’s quite loud.

Once you break through the eye wall, the rain and the wind stop, and it gets really quiet. We don’t get very much time to enjoy the peacefulness, though, because we’re preparing to go through the other eye wall.

What is the biggest difference between working as a meteorologist on a plane versus in a more traditional office setting?

Working as a meteorologist on either a P-3 or a G-IV (the two types of planes we fly), you’re literally in the weather. Although learning about weather from your desk with all the tools and satellite data is still fascinating, there’s something different about being in the middle of it. On a plane you can see the cloud structures and the lightning and feel the turbulence. It’s awesome.

What advice would you give a student interested in following your footsteps?

Continue learning about science and mathematics; talk to your science and math teachers. I was always watching weather shows and The Weather Channel and going online for research. I even tried forecasting for myself when I was in high school, by using satellite and radar loops. Don’t lose your passion!

Interview conducted and edited by NOAA Communications intern, Jack Eidson.
Posted August 1, 2012.
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