More Hurricanes in 2020
NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters fly into Eyes of the Storms
Lt. Cmdr. Danielle Varwig, newest hurricane hunter pilot
The Weather Channel ranks the 2020 hurricane as perhaps the #1 season in their records. The year already has seen a total of 21 tropical cyclones, 20 tropical storms, seven hurricanes, and one major hurricane. Its 20 named hurricanes between June and September, rank as second most active Atlantic hurricane season on record.
These storms can and have wreaked havoc on the East Coast and the job of monitor them from inception to whatever category its swirling power reaches. Enter the NOAA Hurricane Hunters.
Specially equipped NOAA aircraft play an integral role in hurricane forecasting. Data collected during hurricanes by these high-flying meteorological stations help forecasters make accurate predictions during a hurricane and help hurricane researchers achieve a better understanding of storm processes, improving their forecast models.
The below story reviews the career of Lt. Cmdr. Danielle Varwig and her role as PIC of the Gulfstream IV, lovingly referred to as “Gonzo.”
The G-IV’s primary mission is to fly tropical cyclone surveillance missions for the Hurricane Hunters. With a range of nearly 4,000 nautical miles and a cruising altitude of 45,000 feet, this aircraft provides observational coverage at high altitudes critical for defining weather systems in the upper atmosphere.
Lightning flashed on either side of the large jet carrying a team of hurricane hunters as they surveyed what was then Tropical Storm Laura last Monday night.
The threat of convection tightened the insides of Lt. Cmdr. Danielle Varwig, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s newest hurricane hunter pilot.
The 36-year-old pilot took a breath, kept her cool and guided the Gulfstream IV, lovingly referred to as “Gonzo,” away from Laura’s turbulent winds, concluding the seven-hour surveillance flight mission and landing at Lakeland Linder International Airport, an hour south of Orlando.
Upon landing, a flood of relief washed over her in completing her third tropical system mission ever, in about as many days.
Varwig joins the team of 14 pilots, during a memorable hurricane season where NOAA issued a record-breaking forecast for the rest of season predicting a total of 19 to 25 named storms before Nov. 30 – the highest its ever predicted in a single season. Already there have been 13 named storms and four hurricanes, with Laura becoming 2020′s first major hurricane this week. A typical season has about 12 named storms.
Flying with the hurricane hunters excites Varwig, who is the mother of a 4-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. Despite the adventurous aspect of the job, Varwig’s recent flights over Laura and Hurricane Marco have her defying 13 years worth of piloting instincts.
“Everything I’ve been taught tells me to fly away from this,” Varwig said. “I feel like, hurricane hunters, at least for me, we’re the opposite of a hurricane. We are on the outside of this mass of calm and cool air, and collecting at our core there’s this uncertainty, a little bit of fear, but that fear drives us forward like the eye of the storm. It keeps us moving forward on our mission. I’m nervous, I get anxious, but I just go back to my basics – put trust in my training.”
Varwig grew in Queens, New York, in a home near to an arrival and departure corridor of John. F. Kennedy International Airport where planes were always overhead. She didn’t want to be a pilot then, but smiles looking back at the memory now.
Lt. Commander Danielle Varwig poses in front of the WP-3D Orion jet at the
Lakeland Linder International Airport as a pilot for NOAA’s hurricane hunters. (NOAA).
Having always been interested in science, Varwig attended school in Pennsylvania State University within its Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps, graduating with a major in mechanical engineering.
She joined the U.S. Air Force, and later received her pilot certificate in 2008. She served 13 years with the Air Force flying a number of different missions providing surveillance all over the world and even Afghanistan.
While trying to figure out where to fly after serving her commitment to the Air Force, a friend mentioned NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center in Lakeland – a perfect location as Varwig was looking for a place to move in Florida where her family was.
“I was instantly intrigued. Although, being honest. I knew nothing about NOAA,” Varwig said. “But I mean, how amazing is [the Aircraft Operation Center]. They’re the hurricane hunters. What could be more exciting as a pilot? I had no interest in joining an airline. I wanted to do fun flying. I didn’t want to fly from point A to point B. I wanted to have true purpose.”
Varwig’s transfer request is considered an inter-service transfer, which typically take about a year to process. Varwig’s transfer, however, processed three months ahead of schedule. She officially joined the crew in February.
Not only was her transfer quick, Varwig joined NOAA’s AOC as the first Air Force inter-service transfer to be placed in the Gulfstream IV jet. Plus she’s the second Air Force inter-service transfer to the hurricane hunters. The last person to do so was in the 1990s who worked as a navigator, according to NOAA records. Usually transfers come from the U.S. Navy because of their experience in flying P-3 Orion aircraft. The hurricane hunters were looking for an additional pilot for its Gulfstream IV and Varwig’s experience flying large jets made her an ideal candidate.
Her first big test came at 1:30 a.m. on Aug. 22 when she took Gonzo and a team to survey Hurricane Marco. At times, she couldn’t see much except overcast clouds surrounding from all sides.
“My initial thoughts were, I’m doing exactly what I’ve been taught to avoid,” Varwig said. A combination of navigation tools and the on board meteorologists were able to assist her in flying blind away from the storm. “Flying into a hurricane or convective activity, it’s unsettling but as long as the aircraft is doing what I’m asking it to do, I feel good. And flying over [Marco], it was amazing, to get to be part of a mission like that.”
Varwig flew four missions in three days earlier in the week and is feeling exhausted. Varwig knows with such an active hurricane forecast, she’ll probably not be getting much rest between now and the end of November – the end of hurricane season. But the way she sees it, as the new kid on the block, this gives her more time to get used to flying over strong storms.
“It’s disheartening to know that there could be many hurricanes this season meaning a higher risk of destruction, but that makes this job all the more important,” Varwig said. “I have a very unique experience. I’m hoping to offer perspective or a different point of view to the team with my Air Force background. Ultimately I’m hoping that by me doing this, I’ll be reaching out to other little girls who realize they can do this too.”
Share this article: