BEAVER, W.Va. (AP) — As hurricanes approach the coast, millions monitor the news and prepare for the worst.
Beaver native Nick Underwood, however, flies ferociously into the eye of the storm, and gathers data on the monster to make people in its path aware of its strength.
Underwood, 26, has worked as an aerospace engineer and hurricane hunter for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Florida since August 2016.
He spends some days in the office fitting scientific instruments designed to study the weather on aircrafts.
“Any time a scientist comes to us and needs a new science instrument or a new data system mounted to one of those aircraft, whether it’s internally or externally, I’m one of the people who does all the math, does all the physics, to figure out how we can mount those instruments structurally to make sure that they’re going to stay on the aircraft as intended,” Underwood said.
But the more “exciting” part of his job is serving as air crew aboard NOAA’s fleet of hurricane hunters.
He sits near the back of the airplane and deploys Global Positioning System (GPS) dropwindsondes — 18-inch long cylindrical expendable devices designed to track storm conditions as they fall to the surface.
The devices continuously transmit measurements of pressure, humidity, temperature, wind direction and speed as they fall toward the sea, providing a detailed look at the structure of the storm and its intensity. Underwood then sends this data to the National Hurricane Center to update models that predict the direction of the storm and how strong it is.
“I would say the most exciting part is definitely hurricane flights, specifically onboard one of our P-3s, which are our planes that punch right through the side of a storm,” Underwood said. “It’s like nothing else.”
NOAA has a fleet of about three aircraft used for hurricane hunting missions and six used for a range of other missions, including climate studies, coastal mapping, marine life tracking, snow surveys and more.
In April, Underwood traveled to Alaska to study arctic sea ice temperatures and sea surface temperatures.
“It was interesting because there’s still ice that far north but there are holes in it,” he said. “These ocean probes don’t work unless they’re in the water, and so we were basically doing what effectively, was bombing runs on these small openings on the ice, trying to time it just right to drop these probes into the holes in the ice.”
Out of 10 probes, only one missed the water.
“That was one of the coolest things I’ve done in this job, I think,” Underwood said.
Whether mathematically or scientifically, despite the often thrilling flights, everyday is a challenge, he noted.
Of his most memorable moments in the sky, was when his team was tracking Hurricane Maria in September of last year.
Maria is considered the worst natural disaster on record to affect Dominica and Puerto Rico.
On the day before the storm hit Puerto Rico, Underwood flew an eight-hour mission to track its temperature, pressure and wind direction and speed. He called the experience “one of the more humbling experiences of his life.”
“Knowing that the data I was collecting was important for the models, but there was nothing more that I could do — I couldn’t stop the storm, I couldn’t turn it away,” Underwood said. “It may not be a cool thing in this job, but it certainly is a powerful thing to understand that these are monsters that come for our homes, come for our communities. It’s nature, it’s true, powerful nature and we can’t stop it, we can’t avert it, we just have to, literally, weather the storm.
“That day really got into my mind of how important the work I do is. It certainly keeps me focused, keeps me wanting to do more to help make the models more accurate, get us a longer period of warning before this stuff happens.”
Underwood never dreamt of becoming a hurricane hunter.
In fact, when he graduated four years ago from West Virginia University, he wasn’t even aware that the job existed.
In eighth grade, on a family vacation to Cape Canaveral, Florida, Underwood decided he wanted to be an astronaut.
“I saw my first rocket launch in person and at that moment I knew — as a starry eyed eighth grader — that was what I wanted to do,” he said.
He believes growing up near Beckley inspired him to be curious.
“The beauty of West Virginia is that there’s always something new to find,” Underwood said.
Living only five minutes from a state park and 10 minutes from a national park, his parents would take him hiking often.
“I would love just hiking through the woods and finding new places and just seeing all the different plants and animals and even outside of the nature aspect of it, I was always very mechanically minded,” he said.
“It’s my parents who really fostered that in me, to make me a curious child to encourage me to ask questions about why things work and why they work that way. I carry those lessons with me today and I think it’s lead me to be very successful.”
After college, Underwood pursued a job as a flight test engineer at Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, Maryland.
While having drinks with Astronaut Reid Wiseman, he gained advice that to have a chance at visiting space, he should pursue unique jobs, away from the desk.
“Now, I’m two years into it and I love it and I can’t imagine going to do much of anything else, because nothing else would be as exciting or rewarding as this job is,” Underwood said.
His experiences — both exciting and sometimes devastating — have inspired him to go after a more scientific role at his job. He recently started going to school part-time to study physical oceanography — the study of how the oceans and the atmosphere interact with with each other and how energy is transferred between them.
He’d like to conduct research in hurricane formation and understand more of the work he’s supporting at NOAA.
He still intends to become an astronaut one day, but for now hunting hurricanes is a pretty great gig.
Follow Underwood’s adventures at twitter.com/theastronick and instagram.com/theastronick