Hurricane chaser shoots video of ‘toughest flight’ in Ian’s eye

Nick Underwood flies over hurricanes for a living. Over the past six years, the aerospace engineer has made 76 passes through more than 20 of them, none more difficult than the one he endured on Wednesday morning.

“That flight…was the worst I’ve ever taken,” Underwood said in a Tweeter after flying into the center of Hurricane Ian. “I have never seen so many flashes in one eye.”

And he captured it all on video – in a matter of hours, one of the clips has been viewed 1.2 million times.

Underwood, 30, was turning around 6 a.m. Wednesday when the plane he was in flew toward Ian as the Category 4 storm approached the Gulf Coast of Florida. He is part of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hurricane hunting team that collects data that forecasters use to predict where storms like Ian will go next and how strong they will be when they get there. Since 2016, Underwood has made more than six dozen hurricane penetrations, or “penny”, across 22 or 23 hurricanes – he’s not sure of the exact number.

“I personally lost count,” he told the Washington Post. “I need to update my spreadsheet.”

None of them gave him a trick more harmful than the one Ian gave on Wednesday morning.

“When I say this was the hardest flight of my career so far, I mean it. I’ve never seen the bunks come out like this,” he said on Twitter, referring to the beds. crew members in the back of the plane who were tossed around. “There was coffee everywhere. I never felt such sideways movement.”

About nine hours after flying from Underwood to Ian, the hurricane made landfall near Fort Myers as a Category 4 storm with winds of 150 mph. Early Thursday, Ian weakened to a tropical storm as it spiraled northeast, but NOAA has warned that it will leave catastrophic and life-threatening flooding in parts of central Florida. Forecasters are predicting that Ian will soon head north, causing extensive flooding in the northern part of the state, southeast Georgia and eastern South Carolina through the end of the week.

Underwood and his fellow hurricane hunters took off from Houston around 4 a.m. and flew Kermit, their Lockheed WP-3D Orion turboprop plane, a little less than two hours to reach the Florida coast. Before arriving, their military counterparts reported what they encountered after weathering the storm, Underwood told the Post. “They said, ‘Hey guys, this ride wasn’t fun,’ and so we kind of knew what we were getting into.”

NOAA hurricane hunters secured everything they could, tied down, and dropped Kermit about 8,000 feet before entering the hurricane. Traveling through the outer bands of the storm, they encountered a “considerable amount” of turbulence.

Underwood began recording as they approached the eyewall, the strongest part of the storm. Shakes of turbulence sent bunks, coffee, shoes, and Underwood himself flying, along with a few select words.

“You get pushed around. Some parts are, you know, it’s fun. It’s a bit like being on a roller coaster at some point,” he said. “But other times you hear the plane shaking and vibrating, and that can be a bit unnerving.”

What stood out for Underwood was the lightning. He said he had never seen so many and pointed to a photo he took during Wednesday’s mission, a photo that appears to have been taken during the day.

“Looks like 11 a.m. outside. Looks like the sun is coming up,” he told the Post. brilliant that it just lit up the whole eye.”

Born and raised in West Virginia, Underwood started working at NOAA in August 2016, he said. Two months later, it flew into its first hurricane – Matthew, which became a Category 5 storm that raked the Atlantic coast of Florida. While the first two hours of his first mission went well, he spent the next six being as sick as he had ever been. Still, he was addicted.

“It was about this data collection mission that is ultimately going to save lives and save money. That’s what really appealed to me,” he said.

There have been many storms since. Irma, Maria and Harvey in 2017. Florence the following year. Dorian and Lorenzo in 2019, followed by Laura, Eta “and so many other storms” in 2020. Before Ian, Underwood’s toughest flight came through Hurricane Florence.

Underwood said he loves his job, but stressed that hurricane chasers don’t fly in storms just for fun. They collect data about the temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed and direction inside a storm, so the National Hurricane Center can feed it into forecast models.

More data means better predictions.

“And that means the sooner you can warn people to get out of the way, to secure their homes, whatever they have to do,” Underwood said. “And so the whole mission is really about protecting life and property.”

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