Reservist chased a dream; now chases hurricanes

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kristen Pittman
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

Nearly three decades after the fact, U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Amaryllis Cotto can still vividly remember Hurricane Andrew. 

The shrill screech of a woman screaming for her life outside.

Windows breaking.

Walls vibrating.

Running across the street to seek shelter with neighbors as her own family’s house groaned its way to ruin. The Category 5 winds simply too much for the structure.

Holed up in a bathroom she recalls touching her dad and saying, “Daddy, it’s going to be okay,” as he and their neighbor struggled to keep the door from blowing open.

All the while her mother was quietly convinced it would be their last day on Earth.

This is Cotto’s first memory of severe tropical weather, but as one of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron here’s newest aerial weather reconnaissance officers, it definitely is not her last.

After the devastation brought by Andrew, Cotto’s family moved from Miami to her parents’ native Puerto Rico where she lived until she graduated high school. 

Of course, just like Florida, Puerto Rico is in a location privy to tropical disturbances.

Cotto says while Andrew was a significant experience, 1998’s Hurricane Georges is what really sparked her interest in weather and becoming a Hurricane Hunter. 

“Weather was always fascinating to me,” she said. “For Hurricane Georges, I was in Puerto Rico, and I was filming the whole thing. I was out there, living it, thinking it was so amazing, and that’s when I knew that this was what I was going to do.”

She said she knew about the Hurricane Hunters from doing science projects and research papers in high school, and the mission of collecting data to ultimately help affected areas plan and evacuate, or not evacuate, aligned with her desire to do something in life that allowed her to make a real impact.

From those early experiences her interest grew and soon she found herself at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach studying applied meteorology with a concentration in research while minoring in mathematics and air traffic control.

As if a full course-load was not enough, Cotto was also busy pursuing and receiving her private pilot’s license.

At this point in her life she knew about both the 53rd WRS Hurricane Hunters and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hurricane Hunters, and she figured the best way to have the chance to work for one of them one day would be to cover all the bases. 

She continued her education at Florida International University pursuing her M.S. in geosciences with a concentration on tropical meteorology. While there, she volunteered her time for school credits at the National Weather Service’s Miami location where she was able to network with people from the National Hurricane Center. 

Again, as if graduate-level studies and interning were not enough, Cotto furthered her pilot experience this time becoming qualified to pilot a multi-engine aircraft. 

In 2012, after receiving her graduate degree, Cotto returned to Puerto Rico to work at the NWS San Juan location where she stayed for six years. 

While there, Cotto’s dream of becoming a hurricane hunter was still very much alive.

“In 2014, I interviewed with the 53rd after meeting some of them during their Caribbean Hurricane Awareness Tour,” said Cotto. “But being non-prior was a big hurdle because a lot of the people going into these positions are already in the service. Being in Puerto Rico didn’t help either because there were only Air Force active duty and Air National Guard recruiters.”

Luckily, Cotto earned a promotion at the NWS in the summer of 2018 and relocated to the Houston-Galveston office in Texas where she was able to finalize the process. In December 2018, Cotto raised her right hand and took the oath of commission to join the Air Force Reserve and become an aerial reconnaissance weather officer with the 53rd.

The responsibilities of an ARWO include continuous observation and quality assurance of atmospheric data collected in-flight and the use of that data to pinpoint and guide the crew to the center of a storm. Also, the officer routinely sends data from the aircraft to forecasters at the National Hurricane Center, enabling more timely and accurate forecasts for those in potentially affected areas.

November 2020’s Hurricane Eta marked Cotto’s first storm flight as an ARWO in training with the 53rd WRS, and what a first one it was.

Eta was the 28th storm of the 2020 Atlantic season, which tied a record set in 2005 for most named storms in a season. It was also one of the strongest hurricanes of the season maxing out as a category 4 storm with winds of up to 150 mph, causing devastation to parts of Central America.

All of the years of experience and studying and working to get to this goal had culminated to this first mission, and Cotto described it as “amazing.”

During a hurricane flight, ARWOs observe atmospheric data collected and, first, check it for accuracy before using that data to guide the crew to the center of a storm. Accuracy is tantamount as the closer a crew can get to the center, the more helpful the data sent from the aircraft to forecasters at the National Hurricane Center will be. 

“I was definitely nervous, and it was such a long flight because of how far south it was, but it was more than I ever expected,” said Cotto.

Fast-forward through a Nevada blizzard, a promotion to first lieutenant, seven storms, and nearly a year later Cotto is no longer a stranger to flying in storms, anymore. In fact, she’s a fully qualified ARWO.

Any story where someone realizes a dream early on and achieves that dream after years of hard work is usually a good story in itself, but considering the statistics of women studying and applying their Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education in the real world Cotto’s journey is that much more remarkable and inspiring.

According to a study done by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration, women make up about half of the entire American workforce, but account for less than a third of the STEM workforce. Meanwhile, a report published by Pew Research Center found that of all STEM workers, Hispanics only make up 8% of the area despite being the second largest ethnic group in America.

The American Association of University Women cites a number of reasons why the numbers between men and women in STEM are so disproportionate ranging from the different levels of encouragement girls and boys are given in grade school stemming from cultural and societal norms to the lack of role models in real-world STEM roles as well as in media and pop culture. 

“There is progress in the STEM community, but it’s slow,” said Cotto. “As a female, the reality of it is, you’re going to have good days and you’re going to have to push through tough moments and many unique experiences. But I’d go through it all over again because I am living a once in a lifetime dream now; however, it is important to note the amount of difficulties women face on a day-to-day basis throughout their careers as compared to their male colleagues and how that imbalance can greatly affect people’s lives.”

The underrepresentation has been evident from her undergraduate experience in an over 80% male student body at Embry Riddle to what she describes as what can sometimes be a “male dominant behavior” environment in her civilian career-field. She said while her personality is one that’s always been comfortable around everybody, there are still times of pushback and unpleasant moments and her best advice is to “remain true to yourself, continue to find joy and excitement in your passions, and always surround yourself with people who love and support you.”

The aforementioned statistics are also reflected on the military side as flying units are generally male dominated. According to the Air Force Personnel Center, women make up 7% of both pilots and navigators in the Active Duty Air Force, and in the 53rd WRS, according to the Feb. 28 Fiscal Year 2022 Annual Tour Report for the squadron, women make up less than 20% of the four aircrew positions. That number is less than the total representation of female service members in the Air Force Reserve, which is approximately 30% according to FY 2021 data provided by The Defense Civilian Personnel Advisory Service.

Despite the disparity, Cotto said from her first interview board, the squadron has felt like home and its people have felt like family. 

“I hope I make (Puerto Rico) proud,” she said. “It’s an honor to be an example that no matter where you come from, no matter who you are, and no matter what your background is, if you set your mind to something you can do it. If you have a dream or goal or passion you want to pursue, try your best to achieve it. Don’t think about it. Take a chance and go for it. Enjoy the journey and appreciate those who help you along the process as well.”