A team known as the “Hurricane Hunters” gets up close and personal with these storms. While local officials and meteorologists signal caution to their viewers that may be in areas of danger, West Virginia University graduate Nick Underwood and his colleagues fly directly into them.
Underwood, a Beaver, W. Va., native, received his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources in 2014. He joined the “Hurricane Hunters” right after graduating.
“We fly aircraft into hurricanes to collect important scientific data that you really can't get any other way,” Underwood said. “That includes temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed, wind direction, everything that goes into how strong a storm will be, and where it's going to end up.”
After flying into these storms via a specifically engineered plane, Underwood and the team drops instrumentation, which helps to collect valuable data that can help show information about the storm and how it could grow and where it could head.
Videos of Underwood and his team have gone viral in recent years, sparking intense media interest in their potentially life-saving work. Severe winds, extreme turbulence, and the crew’s bravery in extremely challenging conditions have caught the attention of viewers online.
Every mission has its individual challenges, and tropical storms and hurricanes can vary wildly in severity and strength. Tropical storms become hurricanes when they hit 74 miles per hour in wind speed, and can exceed 157 mph at their most dangerous.
Flying a plane into those conditions — with none of the comforts of a commercial airline like seat cushions and drinks service — is dangerous.
“There is risk to [the work], and we do everything we can to mitigate that risk,” he said. “So all of our crew are highly trained. They're training throughout the year to fly through these storms. Our flight directors on board are trained to look at the radars, make sure we're not flying through anything too nasty, and everyone on board goes through water survival training.”
Underwood is responsible for loading and unloading the scientific instrumentation necessary to collect data, such as temperature, humidity, wind speed and wind direction — everything to produce as accurate a prediction as possible of where a storm could end up, and how strong it could turn out to be.
“That's why we want to do the best job we can up in the air, so that we can warn those people ahead of time that a storm is coming,” he said.
All the data his team collects is then sent to the National Hurricane Center. The NHC issues hurricane watches and warnings, and local emergency managers and officials use that information to evacuate areas when a storm is headed that way.
From 1991 to 2020, there have been 14 “named” storms, seven hurricanes, and three major hurricanes. Hurricanes are classified with category numbers, indicating their severity. A major hurricane is anything over Category 3, 4 or 5, according to the NOAA. In those 30 years, storms have been estimated to be responsible for $2.1 trillion in damages.
As the world’s weather becomes more severe and unpredictable, this kind of work will only become more valuable. The earlier, and more accurately, a storm can be predicted can provide people in danger zones time to prepare — and evacuate.
“One thing I learned at WVU was that no person accomplishes anything alone,” he said. “And this work environment, being on that aircraft in a hurricane, that is a major team environment and everyone needs to be doing their part and doing it well, to be sure that we're going to be successful, and that we're gonna be safe.”