Q&A with Rear Admiral Nancy Hann, Commanding Officer of NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations

Rear Admiral Hann discussed the importance of NOAA collaborations and partnerships during recent visit to Scripps Oceanography

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is an agency that propels scientific research and discovery about oceans, waterways, and the atmosphere. NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO) administers the NOAA fleet of ships and aircraft and trains divers to safely support underwater missions for Earth observation.

Rear Admiral Nancy Hann holds a leadership position at NOAA OMAO, serving as Deputy Director for Operations and Deputy Director of the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps. She is responsible for the direct leadership and management of OMAO’s operational assets, including a fleet of 16 research and survey ships and nine aircraft.

NOAA’s ships comprise the largest fleet of federal research ships in the country and support a wide range of marine activities including fisheries research, nautical charting, and ocean and climate studies. The agency also operates highly specialized aircraft to study the ocean, coasts, and atmosphere. These aircraft—which include “hurricane hunter” planes—provide a wide range of capabilities including hurricane reconnaissance and research, marine mammal and fisheries assessment, and coastal mapping.

NOAA aircraft carry scientists—including some from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego—to deploy specialized instrument packages for research to better understand extreme weather events such as hurricanes, atmospheric rivers, and more.

Rear Admiral Hann has served aboard NOAA aircraft as both a pilot and flight meteorologist, and has supported a variety of scientific missions and multiple unmanned aircraft missions as a pilot and project manager. She has also served in many operational and management assignments, most recently completing tours as the commanding officer of the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center and as OMAO's Chief of Staff.

During an Oct. 22 visit to Scripps Oceanography, Rear Admiral Hann toured several Scripps research labs, met with scientists and leadership, and discussed the value of continued partnership and collaboration between NOAA and Scripps.

We sat down with Rear Admiral Hann to discuss her research priorities at NOAA, innovative projects funded by the agency, her career path, and more.

What’s your educational background?

Rear Admiral Nancy Hann: I am a very curious person and have been fortunate to have many opportunities to study in a variety of disciplines. I completed a BA in Marine Science and Biology at the University of San Diego. For graduate studies I completed a Master’s in Public Administration at the Harvard University Kennedy School, and a Master’s of Science in Space Studies and Remote Sensing at Embry Riddle University. I have also studied meteorology and mathematics at Florida International University and completed an Associate’s in Project Management at George Washington University.

What sparked your interest in science and meteorology?

NH: Growing up in Illinois, I recall one of my favorite things was watching the spectacular thunderstorms. I have been interested in all things science, weather and the water as long as I can remember. My mother said I made my declaration in first grade that this was my career field. I don’t recall that moment but know I have loved all things science and wanted to learn and explore as much as possible from a very early age.

You are currently responsible for the direct leadership and management of OMAO’s operational assets, including the agency's fleet of 16 research and survey vessels and nine aircraft. How did you end up in this role?

NH: I started my career with NOAA as a fisheries observer in 1996 and was commissioned as an officer in the NOAA Corps nearly 20 years ago. As a commissioned officer in the NOAA Corps, I have had the opportunity to serve across many NOAA platforms and programs gaining direct experience with many best practices across NOAA’s diverse missions, focused on operations. I have served on commercial fishing vessels, NOAA and NSF research vessels, on NOAA aircraft as a pilot and flight meteorologist and as a NOAA Diver and unmanned aircraft systems pilot. That experience coupled with my educational background, passion for the mission and commitment to the organization, resulted in my selection to serve as Deputy Director for Operations and Deputy Director for the NOAA Corps. This position is the optimal position for me to serve and integrate best practices across NOAA’s operational personnel and assets.

What are some of the main questions you are working to answer at NOAA OMAO?

NH: Our team is focused on providing the best possible workforce and operational assets to meet NOAA’s at-sea and airborne mission requirements. We are very focused on creating sustainable best business practices and platforms. Specifically, we are addressing real challenges such as maintenance on an aging fleet of ships, and sustaining our world-class workforce with focuses on training, personnel and human resource systems. We are equally as focused on creating the ship and aircraft fleet of the future through recapitalization and incorporating rapidly developing technology, including autonomous systems. We consistently seek improvement to provide the best possible products and services to the nation.

What are some of the interesting observational research projects being supported by NOAA OMAO?

NH: The Office of Marine and Aviation Operations works with other government, academic, and industry partners to develop technologies that will enhance our data collection capabilities. We have had a long-standing relationship with the National Center for Atmospheric Research to develop and continually improve the GPS dropwindsonde, an invaluable instrument for collecting vertical atmospheric profile data. We have an exciting project underway with Scripps to test and evaluate a Directional Wave Spectral Drifter, a turn-key drifter for all wave monitoring requirements. This aircraft-deployed probe is deployed from the free-fall chute on the NOAA P-3 aircraft ahead of extreme events and provides valuable air-sea interface data. OMAO is also continuing work with NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research and industry to develop a small unmanned aircraft system deployable from manned aircraft and capable of low-altitude flight to collect valuable data at the air-sea interface. OMAO also has projects with academia, government agencies and industry to develop autonomous launches for charting from our ships.

A woman and man stand in a research lab filled with bright orange oceanographic instruments.
Rear Admiral Nancy Hann of NOAA visits the glider lab of physical oceanographer Dan Rudnick in Scripps Oceanography's Instrument Development Group (IDG).

Are there any current NOAA partnerships or programs OMAO is working on that you are particularly excited about?

NH: I am excited about the diversity and breadth of our current partnerships.  Our collaboration with Scripps Oceanography has been invaluable to leverage our shared assets and capabilities, test and evaluate new technologies such as the Directional Wave Spectral Drifter and expand our mission set into areas such as atmospheric river events. During my visit it was apparent there are many opportunities to expand our partnership with Scripps including support for at-sea projects and growing the future workforce. We have also developed excellent partnerships with the U.S. Navy to leverage survey, culture and training expertise.

Hurricane Hunters and Gulfstream IV aircraft are critical tools for deployment of observational technology, helping scientists better understand extreme weather events such as atmospheric rivers. How has the rise of extreme weather events affected OMAO’s funding priorities?

NH: Within NOAA’s nine aircraft, OMAO operates two Lockheed WP-3D Orion turboprop aircraft and one Gulfstream IV-SP aircraft. These aircraft collect data that directly feed extreme weather forecasts and understanding, including hurricanes, winter storms in the North Atlantic, and atmospheric rivers. The data these aircraft collect provide a tremendous value to the nation for public safety, national security and economic security. We have been well supported to ensure sustainment of these platforms and data into the future. There is currently no aircraft capable of carrying the tail Doppler radar and flying into hurricanes other than the P-3 aircraft. Our two WP-3D Orions recently completed mid-life extensions including new wings, new engines and new avionics. NOAA’s Gulfstream IV is over 25 years old. We received funding in FY 2018 to purchase a new high altitude jet and are underway with the acquisition. The disaster response imagery mission is also very important; the images collected immediately after a storm passes and posted publicly provide emergency managers, businesses and the public critical data. We also received funding in FY 2018 for an aircraft with the capability to perform this disaster response imagery mission.

How has observational technology changed since you first entered the field?

NH: It has been exciting to see the growth in technology. During my first sea tour, we were at the infancy of applying acoustic data to estimate fish stocks. That tool has expanded exponentially. I started work with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in 2006, launching a vehicle from shore to collect data at the air-sea interface in a hurricane. The technology has progressed to the point where we have been able to launch, command and control a test UAS vehicle from an aircraft in the eye of a hurricane. In 2011, we tested the first application of an UAS to conduct photogrammetry-based abundance and life history studies. That program has expanded to multiple applications spanning from Antarctica to the Aleutian Islands, over 1,000 flights per year, and upgraded to collect samples of whale blowhole spray. These are but a few examples that serve to better utilize our assets and answer important scientific questions.

What is your favorite part of your job?

NH: While I love our mission, the ships, aircraft and operations, I get my inspiration and motivation from our people. Every time I have the opportunity to interact with our team, I am energized to make the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations the best possible place to work with the most advanced and reliable assets. We have so many talented, passionate, committed team members and are continually looking for ways to improve our organization. Knowing that I am entrusted to lead this team to provide important at-sea and airborne data is a true honor.

What advice would you give to the next generation of earth and ocean science leaders?

NH: Keep your aperture open to where, when, and in what ways your career will blossom and you can add value. Be curious and continue learning. Ask the tough questions and keep at them until you find solutions. Look for creative solutions, and be multi-dimensional in these thoughts. Invest time in developing relationships and collaborations, they are invaluable. Your career path, contributions, and trajectory within the fields of earth and ocean science will likely be different than you envision at this moment. Embrace those opportunities and don’t forget to have fun!

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