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Bob Lind, Published September 15 2012

Lind: Fargo-Moorhead native flies into storms to collect data

The recent Hurricane Isaac caused terrible damage. But for a Fargo-Moorhead native, being in the middle of it, by choice, was just another day at the office.

Not that Nicole Mitchell takes her job lightly, gaining information that could help the country prepare for future storms. To do that, she flew into the heart of Isaac; not once, but three times.

Nicole is an Air Force Reserves aerial reconnaissance weather officer for the Hurricane Hunters, a unit that flies into tropical weather to gather such data as pressures, wind speeds and exact coordinates of the storm, all of which aid in the forecasting of tropical storms and hurricanes.

She lives in Atlanta, but her squadron is based in Biloxi, Miss. She’s a captain, but soon will be promoted to major.

“Inside the storm,” Nicole writes Neighbors, “I am considered the mission director because I (as the weather expert) am coordinating and directing where we need to fly, making sure all the weather data is collected and accurate, then I transmit the information directly to the National Hurricane Center.”

Nicole was trained as a weather observer and forecaster in the Air National Guard, which she joined right out of high school.

She was a weather forecaster in Europe in support of military operations in Kosovo and Bosnia, and in Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

She’s done weather reporting for TV stations in Duluth, Minn., Rapid City, S.D., South Bend, Ind., and Tulsa, Okla.

She joined the Weather Channel in 2004, but was terminated in 2010 because, she says, the management didn’t want to contend with the hours she needed to take off to serve as an Air Force Reserve hurricane hunter. As reported by Megan Card of The Forum earlier, she’s suing the Weather Channel and its parent companies for violating her rights as a member of the military.

Riding through blizzards

Nicole, 37, was born in Fargo, where she attended school through kindergarten, moved to Moorhead and attended first grade, and then moved to the Twin Cities, where she lived through college.

Her father and step-mother, Rod and Carol Mitchell, live in Detroit Lakes, Minn. Rod retired this year after 50 years with the Wells Fargo Bank in Fargo. Nicole’s grandmother, Joyce Mitchell, lives at Eventide Senior Living, Moorhead, and she has several aunts and uncles in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Nicole visits them at least annually.

Speaking of her father, Nicole says she remembers riding with him to visit her grandparents during blizzards, so being in storms is nothing new. But these days her storms are of a different nature.

12 and counting

Nicole has flown into 12 hurricanes so far, including Charley, Katrina, Irena and Isaac, plus more tropical storms than she can count. Because her team usually flies several times into a hurricane, she has flown into the heart of a hurricane 64 times in her Air Force career.

The most intense storm level she was in was one that had surface wind speeds of 157 mph and higher.

“I absolutely love the hurricane hunting job; it is the perfect blend for me,” Nicole writes.

“I love science, and as a meteorologist, flying into hurricanes also adds a lot of excitement to the mix.

“I also love the sense of service: serving my country, doing a job that helps other people, knowing that what we do helps save lives and keep people safe. I am honored to be part of something like that.

“Even the ‘rough’ flights don’t really bother me,” she says. “Many flights are pretty calm, but there can also be turbulence, lightning, hail. I’ve even seen a tornado form near our plane. That’s where the love of adventure comes in.

“I have an ‘iron stomach,’ so even in the worst of it, it’s just kind of like a crazy roller-coaster ride,” although, she adds, “we usually stay inside a storm for about six hours so it’s a really long ride.”

The flights average about 10 hours; six in the storm, four flying to and from it.

The first two times Nicole flew into Isaac, it was a tropical storm. It had reached hurricane force when she went in the third time. “None of the flights were out of the ordinary; certainly some turbulence, but we’re used to that,” she says.

The plane, a C-130, has a minimum crew of five, but often people in training come along. During Isaac, news media people flew with them, too, because of the interest generated by the land-falling storm.

Nicole has never felt in danger. “I don’t know that I would, unless something went really wrong,” she says. “It takes a lot to rattle me.

“I think seeing a storm first-hand is awesome. Even the bad weather and turbulence doesn’t bother me. In fact,” she says, “I’ve been accused (good-naturedly) that when the turbulence starts to get to other people, I’m the one most likely to be saying, ‘Wheeee!’ ”

Award-winner

Nicole strongly believes in community service and volunteerism. She’s won awards from the military and from the Weather Channel for her community service.

“I especially enjoy working with children,” she says, “and I love getting students excited about math and science.”

She also digs adventure: She’s gone kayaking, white water rafting and sky diving. She’s been on every continent, including Antarctica, and has climbed Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro.

And she certainly loves the stormy life of hurricane hunting. Wheeee!


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