Flying into the eye of Ian: An experienced hurricane hunter takes a wild ride.
TAMPA, Fla. — Nick Underwood has flown into the eye of a hurricane 76 times over the past six years as an aerospace engineer for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. His roughest flight so far? Early Wednesday, to the heart of Hurricane Ian.
“I’ve never seen so much lightning,” he said in a phone interview after landing in Houston.
A veteran of 22 storms, Mr. Underwood described an exceptionally turbulent experience punching through Ian’s thick eye wall. Even inside the eye, which is usually the calmest part of the storm, he and the flight crew, technicians and scientists on the team were continually buffeted inside a Lockheed WP-3D Orion aircraft known as Kermit.
“We’re kind of used to the up-and-down, roller coaster feeling that you get, but in this case, there was just a lot of lateral movement,” he said. “It was a lot more unnerving.”
NOAA’s hurricane hunters help confirm a storm’s location and strength, as do Air Force Reserve reconnaissance flights. But the NOAA planes also serve as flying research labs that launch probes and collect real-time scientific data crucial to understanding — and better forecasting — hurricanes. During Wednesday’s flight, Mr. Underwood’s team launched an experimental research drone that NOAA has been testing.
“The basic idea is that it can go to the places in the storm that we can’t,” Mr. Underwood said, adding that it will collect “the lifesaving data that we’re really up there for.”
The hurricane hunters are based in Lakeland, Fla., but flew the Ian mission from Houston so that the aircraft could safely depart and return. The team’s families mostly live in central Florida and the Tampa Bay area, said Mr. Underwood, who calls St. Petersburg home.
“Your thoughts are always with the folks who are on the ground,” he said. “There is that little extra level of concern when it’s your friends.”