Hurricane hunter says Ian's eyewall flight was 'worst I've ever been on'

Sept 29 (Reuters) - A hurricane hunter who plunged into the eye of Hurricane Ian hours before it plowed into Florida's Gulf Coast with catastrophic force on Wednesday described the storm as the "worst" of his career.

"I have flown storms for the last six years. This flight... was the worst I've ever been on," aerospace engineer Nick Underwood told Reuters following a reconnaissance mission to assess one of the most powerful storms on record to hit the United States.

The pass through the eyewall of the monster storm "took what felt like eons to make it through, just getting bounced around left and right, up and down stuff, going flying in the cabin," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) engineer said.

In a video filmed aboard the flight, the crew aboard the four-engine P-3 Orion turboprop aircraft nicknamed "Kermit" can be seen encountering a bout of severe turbulence as they fly through the eye of the hurricane.

Underwood filmed for nearly two and a half minutes and his video shows how the team of flight engineers, meteorologists and technicians got jostled around, along with the aircraft's bunks and other items.

Ian blasted ashore Florida's Gulf Coast on Wednesday afternoon as a Category 4 hurricane, packing maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour (241 kph), and quickly plunged the region's flat, low-lying landscape into a scene of devastation.

Underwood, who has flown through major hurricanes such as Irma, Maria, Harvey and Laura, said the two things that stood out flying through this storm were the turbulence and lightning.

"Never seen that much turbulence before. And the other thing was lightning, just tons of lightning, especially in and around the eyewall of the storm, which is something that you really just don't see all that often."

The NOAA engineer said the missions are flown to collect data, to feed forecast models, and to help future research.

"The more that we can forewarn people that a storm is headed their way, the better they can prepare their homes, the better they can prepare their families," Underwood said.

"And even if we are in, you know, extreme turbulence, it means something to people on the ground and it really makes an impact on people's lives. And so it is heavy to think about, it is a heavy weight to carry. But it's...a driving force for us."

Reporting by Temis Tormo; Editing by Diane Craft

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