A New Frontier

In a plane, ship or control room, one Orange Beach woman is in the pilot seat, and she wants to bring other women with her.

Michele Finn // Photo by Patricia Dunne

As Hurricane Katrina brewed over the Gulf of Mexico in 2005, Michele Finn piloted a powerful jet up from the Yucatan Peninsula toward the storm, in a “jagged” pattern designed to collect data about the hurricane’s path and intensity.

She was the first female “hurricane hunter” pilot for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and was also the first woman to pilot a Gulfstream IV jet for the agency. The aircraft, which is used for hurricane surveillance, can fly 4,000 miles without refueling and more than 40,000 feet above the earth. 

When Finn graduated high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1984, “Nobody was telling women, ‘Hey, you can go be a pilot’, period, let alone do something like that,” recalls Finn, who was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, as a child. “Nobody was telling a girl in Oklahoma graduating in 1984 that she could drive a ship,” something Finn also did during her career with NOAA. 

In 2010, Finn moved to Orange Beach, Alabama, to take a job as deputy director of NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico disaster response center. She retired from NOAA with the rank of captain in 2013. She is now starting her next role: supervising coastal restoration projects for the engineering firm Volkert, funded with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill restitution money. 

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In November and December of 2019, Finn was part of the largest-ever all-women expedition to Antarctica, among more than 100 women convened by the organization Homeward Bound. Its aim is to build women’s leadership over the next 10 years by bringing 1,000 women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) fields to the awe-inspiring frozen continent. 

Immersed in an ecosystem that differs vastly from the Gulf Coast, yet faces parallel environmental challenges, Finn and her cohorts underwent intensive leadership and strategy training meant to help them elevate other women and build their own careers. Finn says she applied for the highly competitive program in part to discover what trailblazing means for her after retiring from NOAA. 

“I haven’t come up with any answers yet, but I’ve discovered new questions to ask myself,” Finn says on day three of the expedition, which included a Zodiac ride over frigid waves to a rocky spit populated by seals and penguins. 

Michele Finn stands amidst the penguins and icy peaks of Antarctica, as part of Homeward Bound’s all-women expedition.

Road to Adventure

Finn was a “normal kid,” as she describes it, who didn’t necessarily show signs of the unconventional path she ended up taking. She went to Texas A&M University at Galveston to study marine biology because she had fallen in love with the ocean during annual family trips to the beach. It was at school that she met her future husband, now captain of a ship doing offshore construction for the energy sector. 

At Texas A&M, Finn became entranced by the maroon university ship called the Texas Clipper that headed out each summer on research trips, and one summer, she got a job as a student worker on the ship. Then, when a NOAA recruiter came to campus and offered the possibility of piloting ships around the world, Finn was hooked. 

NOAA was dominated by older men, but, according to Finn, they were supportive and encouraging. 

“The crew on my first ship didn’t coddle us, they didn’t treat us like little dolls. They made us work our butts off, they treated us fairly and were really good to us,” she says. “I was trained to not only drive ships, pilot planes and do fieldwork but to manage people who were older and more knowledgeable than myself, which was something I was going to have to do my whole life. You’re going to walk into a lot of situations where people will know more than you. I learned how to do that when I was 22 years old.” 

The first ship Finn piloted was a NOAA ship that surveyed pollution along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. Then NOAA sent her to Hawaii to work on conservation of the Hawaiian monk seal. At the same time, she worked to get a master’s degree in zoology. 

After experiencing the maritime world, Finn got the chance to train as a pilot. First, she flew a plane called the Twin Otter used for surveying coastal pollution. She did a stint as deputy superintendent of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, in California, then returned to the skies after a few years to fly the Gulfstream IV as a hurricane hunter. She was also responsible for aircraft maintenance and operations — another position not typically held by a woman.

While she enjoyed the act of flying, it was the objective of the mission that always drove her. Conveying accurate predictions of a hurricane’s trajectory and intensity is crucial to saving lives and property, as it allows officials on the ground to develop the best evacuation and response plans. Finn chased down severe winter storms as well as hurricanes, each offering their own challenges, but Katrina was perhaps the most memorable. 

“Sometimes you fly over the top and see this perfectly formed storm right below you,” she explains. But Katrina was at an altitude higher than her plane flew. “We were flying through [atmospheric] convection nobody else would fly through,” she recounts.

Finn paved the way for more women to become hurricane hunters at NOAA. In 2018, the agency announced its first hurricane hunting flight copiloted by two women, Rebecca Waddington and Kristie Twining, who chased down Hurricane Hector. Waddington had participated in the second Homeward Bound voyage to Antarctica in 2017 and recommended that Finn apply for the initiative. Finn sees this as an example of how pioneering women can support one another across generations, with younger women mentoring or supporting older women and vice versa. 

Finn and fellow voyagers experience whale sightings at the southernmost tip of the world. Photo by Kari Lydersen

From Whales to Turtles

On the bow of a ship surrounded by brilliant blue and white icebergs, a whale flipping its tail in the distance, Finn describes how this ecosystem, so different from Mobile Bay, inspires her to continue her work at home. Along with her restoration work in the Gulf, she volunteers with animal rescue and sea turtle protection initiatives. 

“Antarctica’s beauty and biodiversity is so awe-inspiring, you don’t need to look for it,” she says. “People from all over the world are working mindfully to preserve it. At the same time, I believe our community is motivated to preserve Mobile Bay and our coasts and can have an impact regionally, nationally and even globally.”

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and journalism professor at Northwestern University. She travelled with the expedition to Antarctica courtesy of Acciona, a Spanish global renewable energy company that sponsors Homeward Bound.

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