And he caught it all on video — in a matter of hours, one of the clips had been viewed 1.2 million times.
Underwood, 30, was filming around 6 a.m. Wednesday when the aircraft he was aboard flew into Ian as the Category 4 storm approached Florida’s Gulf Coast. He is part of a crew of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hurricane hunters 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 “pennies,” through 22 or 23 hurricanes — he is not sure of the exact number.
“I’ve personally lost count,” he told The Washington Post. “I need to update my spreadsheet.”
None of them gave him a gnarlier ride than the one Ian offered up Wednesday morning.
“When I say this was the roughest flight of my career so far, I mean it. I have never seen the bunks come out like that,” he said on Twitter, referring to crew members’ beds at the back of the plane being tossed around. “There was coffee everywhere. I have never felt such lateral motion.”
About nine hours after Underwood flew into Ian, the hurricane made landfall near Fort Myers as a Category 4 storm with 150 mph winds. Early Thursday, Ian weakened into a tropical storm as it spiraled northeast, but NOAA warned that it will leave life-threatening, catastrophic flooding in parts of central Florida. Forecasters are predicting Ian will soon kick north, causing considerable flooding in the northern part of the state, southeastern 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 Florida’s coast. Before arriving, their military counterparts reported what they’d encountered having just flown through the storm, Underwood told The Post. “They said, ‘Hey guys, this ride was not fun,’ and so we kind of knew what we were getting into.”
The NOAA hurricane hunters secured everything they could, strapped themselves in and dropped Kermit to roughly 8,000 feet before entering the hurricane. Traveling through the storm’s outer bands, they hit a “hefty amount” of turbulence.
Underwood started recording as they approached the eyewall, the strongest part of the storm. Jolts of turbulence sent bunks, coffee, shoes and Underwood himself flying, along with some choice words.
“You’re getting bounced around. Parts of it are, you know, it’s fun. It’s kind of like being on a roller coaster at some point,” he said. “But then other times, you’re hearing the aircraft shake and vibrate, and that can be a little unnerving.”
What stood out for Underwood was the lightning. He said he has never seen so much of it and pointed to a photo he took during Wednesday’s mission, one that appears to have been taken during the day.
“It looks like it’s like 11 a.m. outside. It looks like the sun’s up,” he told The Post. “But it was completely dark, and that’s just a lightning bolt that was so close to us and so bright 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, he flew into his first hurricane — Matthew, which became a Category 5 storm that raked Florida’s Atlantic coastline. While the first two hours of his debut mission were fine, he spent the next six being as sick as he ever had been. Still, he was hooked.
“It was all about that mission of gathering this data that, at the end of the day, is going to save lives and is going to save dollars. That is what really drew me in,” he said.
There have been many storms since. Irma, Maria and Harvey in 2017. Florence the next year. Dorian and Lorenzo in 2019, followed by Laura, Eta “and so many other storms” in 2020. Before Ian, Underwood’s toughest flight was through Hurricane Florence.
Underwood said he enjoys his work but stressed that hurricane hunters do not fly into storms just for fun. They are collecting data on temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed and direction inside a storm, all so the National Hurricane Center can pump them into forecasting models.
More data means better forecasts.
“And that means the earlier you can warn people that they need to get out of the way, that they need to secure their homes, whatever they need to do,” Underwood said. “And so the whole mission is really just about protecting life and property.”