Eye on the Sky
By Katlin Swisher
Growing up in Beaver, WV, Nick Underwood dreamed of becoming an astronaut.
“West Virginia is nothing short of beautiful, and growing up so close to so many parks really fostered a sense of adventure in me at a young age,” he says. “My parents helped with that too. They were always pushing me to do well in school, explore new things and ask questions.”
After seeing his first rocket launch at the Kennedy Space Center as an eighth grader, he knew nothing would stop him from someday making his dream come true.
“It was incredible—the rush of wind from the engines flowing past me, the rumble in my chest,” he says of the experience. “I remember looking at my dad and saying, ‘I want to do that.’”
Today, Underwood, a graduate of West Virginia University (WVU), is an aerospace engineer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Aircraft Operations Center (AOC) in Lakeland, FL. The youngest employee at AOC, he designs and implements structural modifications for NOAA’s fleet of nine craft: two WP-3D Orions, a G-IV, four Twin Otters, a Turbo Commander and a King Air.
Underwood’s work isn’t limited to a desk. He is also part of the aircrew on mission flights that conduct hurricane reconnaissance and research, where he operates equipment and deploys expendable atmospheric probes, called dropsondes, to collect data.
Earning His Wings
Underwood’s job has taken him into the eye of five hurricanes since he began his career at NOAA in 2016: Matthew, Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria. He had only been on the job for a month when he tagged along as an observer on a flight mission into Matthew, a Category 4 storm, and he wasn’t prepared for what to expect.
“Flying into a hurricane is kind of like being on a wooden roller coaster for about eight hours,” he says. “You get tossed around, there are sudden drops, and the plane is constantly vibrating. In the eye, however, it is actually very smooth, so you get some relief during that time.”
For Underwood, the most exciting part of his job is definitely the flights. “They are high-intensity and hands-on, and I feel a sense of accomplishment after each one,” he says. “It’s always a rewarding experience.”
Joining the Crew
Each flight crew is made up of a team of pilots, navigators, flight directors, flight engineers and technicians, all of which have different roles but come together to make the mission successful. Because of the sensitive nature of each team member’s role, joining a flight crew is no easy task.
“There’s a lot of training to go through before you can be part of the aircrew,” says Underwood. “Water survival and other emergency situation training such as fires onboard are the most important, and we drill those regularly. There’s also training to operate the science equipment, set conditions of flight and be an observer for engine starts.”
The dropsondes Underwood deploys during missions provide a wide range of atmospheric data, including temperature, humidity pressure and wind to analyze and understand a storm’s formation and intensity.
“All of the data we collect gets factored into models that predict where the storm is going and how strong it will be when it gets there,” he says. “Better predictions allow officials to issue watches and warnings to areas with greater precision, which, in turn, saves lives. The data also provides a greater understanding of tropical cyclone formation, which will allow for more accurate predictions of storms yet to come.”
While hurricane reconnaissance and research is NOAA’s biggest operation, the aircraft are also used for missions like coastal mapping, snow surveys, marine life tracking and atmospheric studies. Underwood spent three weeks in Alaska with one of the Twin Otters, helping with a sea ice extent and ocean surface temperature study. He also traveled to Ireland in February 2018 to support an atmospheric science mission with a WP-3D.
“I look forward to the travel,” he says. “So far, I’ve been to several cities around the continental U.S., Barbados and north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska. Whenever people are needed for a project, I try to be the first to volunteer.”
Sharing the Experience
Underwood documents his experiences on social media to demonstrate how hurricanes are one of the planet’s most destructive forces, claiming lives and billions of dollars in property every year. As a WVU alumnus, he participated in a recent Snapchat takeover to discuss Hurricane Irma, and several of his Twitter videos have gone viral.
“I wanted to make sure people understood the gravity of the situation and the destruction these storms can bring,” he says of his videos and posts. “Watches and warnings do their job, but actually seeing the wind, rain and power these storms can deliver helps hammer home the idea that these are truly monsters we are dealing with. The work we do at AOC is incredible. We put ourselves in harm’s way with the goal of helping others prepare for the worst. We use science and engineering to understand the world around us and improve our processes in doing so. It is important work that affects all of us.”
West Virginia Made
Underwood credits his WVU education as one of the best decisions he’s made for his career.
“Aerospace engineering courses taught by some excellent faculty aside, the biggest and best parts of my time at WVU were student projects and helping with outreach and recruitment,” he says. “Being on the Microgravity Research Team gave me great experience as part of a small team with a big engineering project and also let me work with NASA and check out Johnson Space Center. We have a small team with a big job at AOC as well, so I have been able to put those skills and experiences to good use.”
As a student ambassador for WVU’s Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, he regularly talked with hundreds of prospective students and their families about science and engineering. This experience prepared him for NOAA’s Hurricane Awareness Tour, where he travels to different cities to visit schools and teach communities about hurricanes. He also gives tours of NOAA’s hangar throughout the year.
Reaching for the Stars
Despite his mission-driven, adventure-fueled position at NOAA, Underwood still hasn’t given up on his dream of becoming an astronaut.
“I love my job at NOAA, but I’d probably like to shift to NASA at some point, and becoming an astronaut would be a great way do that,” he says. “On the other hand, I love West Virginia, and I want to do everything I can to help the home that gave me so much. Whether that be through teaching kids, getting into politics or any other way I could think of, I want to do it.”
Advice from NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman, whom Underwood met while working as a flight test engineer for the Naval Air Systems Command, keeps Underwood focused on the future.
“He said, ‘If you want to get to space, don’t be sitting behind a desk.’ I took that advice to heart,” says Underwood. “I still have a desk in an office, but sometimes my desk is in the eye of a hurricane, and I like to think that counts.”
No matter where his travels take him—whether it’s the Arctic Circle or the eye of a hurricane—Underwood’s upbringing in West Virginia keeps him grounded.
“I’m a kid from a small town in West Virginia who, through a little bit of luck and a lot of work, has landed a dream job that I didn’t even know existed when I graduated from WVU three years ago,” he says. “My hope is that through sharing my experiences, I can pay it forward and inspire others to pursue their dreams and passions. If flying into hurricanes gets that job done, then I’m happy to keep doing it.”