September 24, 2018

Flying for Science: Merging Adventure and Exploration in the NOAA Corps

Posted by AGU Career Center

In this Paths Through Science profile, Frank Centinello discusses the circuitous route by which he encountered and pursued his dream job as a pilot in the NOAA Corps. In this position, Centinello gets to experience both his love of flying and scientific exploration.

NOAA pilot, Frank Centinello stands with his plane

“Ever since I was little, my primary inspiration [has been] human exploration and the advancement of knowledge. And second to that, a quick second to that, is that I always wanted to be a pilot,” Frank Centinello recalled. After a winding career path, his current position appears to seamlessly merge these two interests. Centinello currently serves as a pilot in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Commissioned Officer Corps. In this role, he flies a DHC-6 Twin Otter airplane for an array of science missions, including snow, marine mammal, and meteorological surveys, throughout the United States, from Alaska to The Caribbean. “This has been a dream come true for me…to fly these missions in this kind of setting,” Centinello stated.

A descendant of the U.S. Survey of the Coast established by Thomas Jefferson, NOAA Corps places 321 uniformed, commissioned officers on NOAA’s research and survey fleet. Approximately 90% of officers serve of maritime vessels, and 10% fly aircraft.

For his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Centinello studied aerospace engineering at the University at Buffalo in New York. He went on to study the ionosphere’s effects on GPS and radio transmission at the Air Force Research Laboratory and to work on the Moon mission known as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter at Arizona State University. Centinello then returned to academia and pursued a Ph.D. in geophysics supporting GPS research as well as planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “I wanted to get out in the field, and so that’s why I eventually went into geophysics,” Centinello explained.

While he was at MIT, a friend sent him a video about a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) mission to the ocean floor that featured an interview with a NOAA Corps officer. He’d never heard of NOAA Corps before. “So I started googling [and] within 20 minutes of [seeing the video], I was talking to [the] recruiting staff,” claims Centinello. “Within 2 weeks…I visited the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center.” These days, Centinello gets ample time in the field—he is on the road for over half the year helping scientists collect data and piloting planes.

“[There are] so many people that have mentored me and helped me get to this job,” Centinello reflected, “and I’m still in touch with all of them.” Centinello sees mentorship as a lifelong process and still gets dinner with his eighth-grade science teacher.

To those interested in pursuing a career in NOAA Corps, Centinello strongly suggests visiting a NOAA ship and potentially joining a research expedition for several weeks to get a feel for the experience.

Centinello also highlighted two main characteristics that are vital to his daily work in the Corps: a willingness to learn and adapt and an expeditionary spirit. “As aviators, we can travel over 200 days a year; it’s easy to get worn down by the road game,” Centinello noted. “It really helps if you have…fortitude of spirit to continue the mission.”

Bryce Koester is the Fall 2018 Talent Pool Intern.