Interview: NOAA Twin Otter Crew

Published on January 3, 2011 by in Interviews

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NOAA Twin Otter

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This past summer I was up in Barrow, Alaska flying a AC-690 Twin Commander doing marine mammal surveys. About a month into the project a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Twin Otter joined our plane on the ramp. I’ve known about NOAA for years. They’re the guys that fly P-3’s into hurricanes and explore other meteorological phenomena. My assumption was that NOAA primarily hired ex-military pilots and that it would be extremely hard to get a foot in the door. Curious, I mentioned the Oddball Pilot project to the NOAA Captain and was happily surprised by his enthusiasm. Not only was he very approachable, he was also interested in getting the word about NOAA out to the public. (It appears that many people have the same misconceptions that I had, and there was often a shortage of applicants.)

Getting hired as a pilot for NOAA is a very committing endeavor. First you need a Bachelor’s degree, preferably a weather-related science degree. The classic procedure then involves applying for a shipboard job where you serve for 2 years before you can apply and be accepted into the pilot program. Clearly you need to be committed to a NOAA career, and not just looking to build time. There’s also a fast track procedure that bypasses the shipboard duty. This is a more recent addition and was added to address the shortage of applicants. It sounds like a really good program, yet you still need to approach the application in a serious manner. This is not a job for a pilot who wants to stay for a year or two and then move on to the airlines.

Flying for NOAA sounds very interesting, with missions like responding to oil spills and other natural disasters, and flying into hurricanes. NOAA has a varied fleet including Gulfstream jets, King Airs, a Shrike and Turbo Commander, and Twin Otters. So there’s room to move around. The aircraft you fly will determine your mission, but for the most part you can expect a lot of time away from home.

NOAA itself is limited, by law, to a set number of pilots. It sounds like a pretty tight knit and well run organization, with all the benefits of a government organization as well as some of the downsides.

In this audio interview you’ll hear NOAA pilots Brad Fritzler and his co-pilot Rob Mitchell talk about:

  • What NOAA is and does, how it’s structured, and where aviation fits in
  • What NOAA Corps Basic Officer Training is like
  • What NOAA Corps Officers do
  • How Brad went from a Private Pilot certificate and handling bags for United to flying a Twin Otter for NOAA
  • What life at sea is like
  • How Rob went directly from the University of North Dakota to a flying job with NOAA via the “Direct to Aviation” program
  • What the initial pilot training for NOAA pilots at FlightSafety International is like
  • How much NOAA pilots make
  • How long it takes to upgrade to Aircraft Commander
  • The different types of aircraft NOAA flies, and their missions (storm experiments and reconnaissance, obstruction photography, disaster damage assessment, whale surveys, remote sensing, air chemistry analysis, and more)
  • How NOAA’s heavily modified P-3 Orions fly into hurricanes, and why
  • What “dropsondes” are and why they’re like “reverse weather balloons”
  • How an aircraft outfitted with a gamma radiation detector can help scientists measure the moisture content in snow to predict flooding
  • Why most pilots who fly for NOAA end up staying for their entire careers
  • How flying for NOAA is–and isn’t–like flying for the military.
  • The impact of being a NOAA pilot on one’s family and social life
  • Why flying for NOAA is a great job if you’re interested in science
  • How much competition there really is for NOAA flying jobs
  • What a typical day is like as a NOAA pilot
  • How NOAA pilots are expected to take responsibility for their own training and improvement
  • Why NOAA pilots consider the scientists in back to be part of the crew
  • Why flight time isn’t the critical factor for advancement at NOAA once you’re in
  • How to apply for a flying job with NOAA

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Right-click to download the MP3 file (1 hour 15 minutes – 35 MB)

Did you like this interview? Leave your comments below.

Be sure to also check out our NOAA Twin Otter Aircraft Walkthough video, in which Brad takes you inside a NOAA de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter.

To learn more about flying for NOAA, check out these sites:

NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps (

NOAA Aircraft Operations Center (

NOAA Career site (

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2 Responses to “Interview: NOAA Twin Otter Crew”

  1. brangee says:

    Thank you for this. I’m strongly looking into going into the NOAA. I’m working on my ratings and I’m getting a degree in a physical science/GIS. Seems like a good gig!

    • Aidan Loehr says:

      It does look like a good gig! I’ve met a few NOAA pilots and they were all happy with their career choice. For the right pilot it would be great. Lots of structure and time away from home but also job security, cool planes, cool flying and a chance to work with the scientists who are usually very interesting!

      With a science degree you match their profile. Let us know what happens.


      PS – I don’t have much info yet but check out NASA as well. They’re not only about space! They do some really cool atmospheric research as well.

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