A CSUMB alumnus chases hurricanes to save lives
November 17, 2022
By Mark C. Anderson
The hardest thing about hunting hurricanes is not staying alert across eight hours and 3,000 nautical miles of pursuing, dodging and measuring tropical cyclones.
It’s not navigating convective air columns 45,000 feet up that can thwart engines if too warm or knock out sensors if too cold.
It’s not braving turbulence that brings on negative and positive G force that can press you into a seat or float you off of it.
It’s balancing the technical demands in the midst of the emotions violent storms bring.
Captain Jason Mansour, who graduated from CSUMB as an Earth Systems Science and Policy major (now Environmental Science Technology and Policy), is familiar with the demands of the hurricane chase.
He’s flown 4,000 hours for the smallest and least known of the eight active-duty uniformed services of the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps.
For years, he and his crew could’ve been summoned to head toward crazy weather events like Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Ian with 24 hours notice. Even as Floridians are still cleaning and rebuilding from Ian's devastation, they are bracing for Tropical Storm Nicole which threatens to swell to hurricane proportions.
“It feels personal as the tropical cyclone gets closer and closer to making landfall, knowing that people are about to be impacted,” he says. “I’m thinking, ‘OK we’re up here, and our loved ones are being impacted, others’ loved ones are being impacted, but we’ve got to stay focused. We have a job, but can’t just turn off our feelings. It’s a challenge.”
His duty during Hurricane Ian was to direct the 10-person crew of NOAA’s Gulfstream-IV, a high-altitude environmental reconnaissance jet deployed to collect data—pressure, wind speed, direction, from 9 miles high to the surface—to inform local, state and federal emergency response.
As the aircraft commander and pilot-in-command, his post keeps him moving from the jump seat of the flight deck positioned between two pilots, to the flight director who advises how to traverse the storm, to the aft where other crew members are taking tail doppler radar readings and dropping sensors through the weather system.
“There’s so much happening,” he says. “We’re working together through these questions: ‘Is the jet where it needs to be? Are we getting the data we need? What's the next place to head for more information? How do we avoid [dangerous] spots?’
As that happens, he keeps the stakes front of mind. “Without ‘in-situ’ and real-time observations directly in or near the cyclone environment,” he says, “our forecasts would be less accurate.”
He believes his education at CSUMB—which preceded basic training in New York, a stint on a NOAA fishery research trawler in the Bering Sea measuring pollack populations, flight school in Florida, and aerial marine life tracking on both coasts—to be fundamental in his development.
“There was so much choose-your-own adventure nuance to the curriculum and campus life,” he says. “It was that freedom—while respecting and acknowledging responsibilities—that creates an entrepreneurial spirit and harnesses it to make sure students who want to achieve more aren’t just encouraged, but have the personal and professional resources to do it.”
Key to that, he adds, was support from faculty that he characterizes as “relentless.”
“One of the reasons I chose CSUMB was I didn't want to be a student number—I wanted professors to know my name and [take] real ownership of classes,” he says. “Professors who care about you holistically as well as your academic success.”
Doug Smith, now interim dean of Graduate Studies and Research, served as his professor in geology and California Transect.
“There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Jason was going places,” Smith says. “He had such a positive attitude and was very focused on success, teamwork and collaboration. He had remarkable foresight and he made it happen.”
Mansour knows of a handful of other Commission Corps officers who have studied science at CSUMB. One is his best friend, Commander Tony Perry III, now associate director of a NOAA meteorology-oceanography lab in Miami—which means Perry has observed Mansour as an Otter undergrad and a senior officer.
He describes a mellow friend who’s not all that different from the student he met at a CSUMB-sponsored sign language camp.
“All of us have changed in 18 years—he’s now an incredible dad to his two sons and has become an amazing leader in the organization—but overall he hasn’t changed much,” Perry says. “He still has a playful attitude and a great outlook.”
Those will serve him well at his next post, operations director for NOAA’s National Ocean Service, which he begins next week. He’ll be tasked with coordinating all of NOAA Corps’ ships, aircraft and uncrewed systems as they gather environmental intelligence.
It’s a massive responsibility. Fortunately, Mansour has shown he can weather whatever storm he flies into.