The following is excerpted and adapted from a story by Maj. Marnee A.C. Losurdo, 403rd Wing Public Affairs.
Like the paths of hurricanes, the career paths of two women who study these storms close up has been unpredictable, even unexpected. That’s because, as women scientists, they are pioneers of a sort, navigating their ways through a traditionally male-dominated field.
Maj. Devon Meister, pilot, and Maj. Ashley Lundry, aerial reconnaissance weather officer (ARWO), are members of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (WRS), aka the “Hurricane Hunters,” a unit in the Air Force Reserve’s 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi.
The 53rd WRS is the only Department of Defense unit that annually flies reconnaissance missions into severe tropical weather June 1 to Nov. 30, gathering data for the National Hurricane Center to improve their forecasts and storm warnings.
“I want to make sure I’m spending my time on earth wisely; I want to do something that’s valuable,” said Meister, who has flown into more than 50 storms. “The only tool that forecasters have for tropical cyclone prediction is satellite data; and that’s not enough because a satellite can’t tell you the exact center, wind speeds on the surface, and the central pressure of a storm. We have to fly into the storm to gather that data. Providing this data to the National Hurricane Center and increasing their forecast accuracy is rewarding and important to me.”
For Lundry, being part of the 53rd WRS represents the fulfillment of a nearly lifelong goal. “It was my dream to fly though hurricanes since I was a little girl,” said Lundry. Her father, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and Navy pilot, influenced her career choice, she said. “I always thought weather was really cool, and my dad told me there were pilots who flew planes through hurricanes. He planted the idea that I could do it.”
After serving in the U.S. Army and Air National Guard, Lundry received an Army ROTC scholarship to attend the Florida Institute of Technology and earned a degree in meteorology and her commission in 2006. After a master’s degree in physical science and four years as an Army logistics officer, she transferred to the Oklahoma Air National Guard in 2010 to serve as a weather officer. With those credentials in tow, she eventually transferred to the 53rd in 2014 and began her training to become a qualified ARWO.
For Meister, becoming a Hurricane Hunter wasn’t a life-long goal, but she knew she wanted a degree in mathematics, and the Air Force provided her the opportunity to do so, she said.
“I really liked math,” said Meister who earned her degree from the University of South Florida in 2003. “And a good thing about a mathematics degree is that it opens a lot of doors for you in the military. At the time I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in the Air Force, but they needed weather officers. They sent me to get a second bachelor’s degree in meteorology, and I became a weather officer.”
Meister also got the opportunity to become a pilot, and with her training as weather officer, she found her way to the Hurricane Hunters in 2011.
According to recent figures, Meister is one of two female pilots in the squadron, one of 243 female pilots in the Air Force Reserve, and one of 728 in the entire Air Force. Lundry is one of four female ARWOs in the squadron, Air Force Reserve and Air Force as the 53rd WRS is the only unit that has this job.
For the Record Books
As Hurricane Hector began to threaten the islands around Hawaii this summer, two of Lundry’s and Meister’s counterparts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) flew the first all-female piloted flight into a storm in the NOAA’s 60-year history.
Capt. Kristie Twining and Lt. Cmdr. Rebecca Waddington later flew a similar mission into Hurricane Florence, and an NBC News crew captured their story.
“Just because it’s not a traditional lifestyle or career for a woman, it’s certainly something that we’re good at,” Twining said. “It’s important for women to step up and accomplish what they need to do to do this kind of work.”
Paving the Way
As women with math and science degrees in scientific career fields that are typically dominated by men, these female pilots are setting an example for future generations. In 2015, women filled 47 percent of all U.S. jobs and held 24 percent of the jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematic jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration “STEM Jobs: 2017 Update” report.
“As a meteorologist, and in any science career, there are fewer females, but I think that’s changing,” said Lundry.
“I was surprised to learn that only seven percent of pilots in Reserve are women,” added Meister. “But, that’s why I like going and talking at schools where little girls can see that there is a female doing the job.”
The pilot’s advice to young women is to push themselves and just try something challenging as it can be really difficult to take that first step, she said.
“Get out of your comfort zone and try things you don’t think you can do because what you’re capable of will surprise you,” she said. “Focus on being teachable; do your best to learn the material and then try something harder; by successfully passing courses in school you are building a track record [of] success for yourself. In high school I never would have thought I’d be where I am today, but the military made that possible.”