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From the office to flying above the clouds
Katie Valentine
/ Categories: Profile, Women in Research

From the office to flying above the clouds

One scientist's night on a NOAA research plane

In honor of Women's History Month, NOAA scientists from across the country are taking readers inside what a typical day in their life looks like. Today's story comes from Mimi Hughes, a research meteorologist at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, who recently got the chance to fly on one of NOAA’s Lockheed WP-3D Orion (or “P-3”) aircrafts during the NOAA Atomic mission in Barbados. 

I’m trained as a meteorologist, so I try to understand why the atmosphere does what it does. Usually, my job is pretty office-bound, but this year I had the opportunity to go on the ATOMIC mission as an observer. I had never been on a field campaign in my professional career! My lab wanted to give the opportunity to a few scientists to see what it’s like to collect data. Modelers like me generate data using supercomputers, but we rarely have a chance to see what it’s like to go out and collect observations. So that’s part of why I was selected to go on ATOMIC — to get a better appreciation for what goes into collecting these observations that are so critical for modelers. 



A front view of the P-3 before takeoff of our flight. Credit: Anna Lea Albright.

I was in Barbados for six days, and went on the first nighttime flight of the P-3 during the ATOMIC mission (the others had been daytime flights). Fortunately I hadn’t really adjusted to Barbados time yet when I was told I was going to be on a nighttime flight!

I had never been on a research plane, so it was a pretty amazing experience to be able to go on the flight and see how we collect data. I was super nervous about the flight before I went to Barbados, but my nerves subsided a bit once I was there. I was told I should probably get some motion sickness medicine before going on, because the P-3, compared to a commercial plane, is pretty small. Also, they’re flying at several different altitudes — we flew down to 500 feet, which is staggeringly low. So yeah, I was pretty nervous, but I have to say when I got to the flight operations center and got the pre-briefing and saw the crew — these people are so amazingly professional and have their duties down to clockwork — my nerves were totally fine! It was clear the plane was in the control of people who knew what they were doing. 

View from the P-3

View from the P-3

Clouds lit by moonlight looking out the porthole of the P-3.

There were around six or seven scientists and eight or nine crew members on my flight. Everyone took their seats during takeoff. We all had a safety vest to put on during takeoff and landing, and also when we went below a certain altitude, so it felt extremely safe. 

In terms of the science, a lot of the planning was done beforehand. For our flight, they decided to drop dropsondes (instrument packages that measure temperature, humidity, air pressure and wind speed and direction) in large circles to sample the large-scale environment of the clouds, and also fly below, within, and above the clouds to profile the different cloud characteristics. While we were up in the air, the flight crew, scientists, and flight operations center on the ground were looking at the clouds and also making real-time decisions about where to fly and about the best spots to transect the clouds. 

Once these decisions were made, the scientists monitored the data the dropsondes collected live. We’d hear a “pffft” as the dropsonde fell out of the chute, and I could watch as the dropsonde fell through the atmosphere and sent data back to the airplane. The other scientists were monitoring other observations that were being collected, like radar data.

There was also a lot of downtime, particularly when we were moving between the large dropsonde circles. We all brought our own food  — since the flight was 10 p.m to 6 am, I just brought snack bars rather than anything more substantial. You’re up there for a while, so that’s too long to not eat! By the end, we were all pretty tired and trying to keep each other awake (the scientists, at least — not the pilots!).

I would definitely do it again — it was an amazing experience. Still, even though I don’t usually go on field campaigns like this, I love my day-to-day job. My work focuses on how to improve water forecasts for NOAA, so I look at precipitation and other processes that influence water on earth. My typical day can be pretty varied, and I love that variety. A lot of days involve me doing something like writing a paper, or working on analysis for a paper. I also have days where I go to lots of meetings for the projects I’m working on. So I do a lot of talking with other scientists to decide how to steer the science and what interesting things to do next. Those active meetings are my favorite, because that’s where the fun brainstorming happens! Also, my job offers me flexibility — I have kids so if I need to go take an hour off and watch my son present a science project, I can do that, which is something I really love. The flexibility and variety of being a research scientist can’t be beat; that paired with the satisfaction of supporting NOAA’s mission makes this job the perfect match for me.

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    Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.



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