Funnel Feature written by: Brandon Molyneaux
My first real exposure to tornadoes was when I was about 12 years old. I was in Charlotte, NC at a NASCAR race with my dad, and I remember over the intercom that a tornado was spotted. Everyone was pointing to the north, and I clearly remember seeing a tornado several miles away (it was nowhere near coming remotely close). This sort of sparked my interests to chase, as I always thought chasing was reserved for the professionals at the time.
My first chase came about when I was a sophomore in college studying meteorology. A friend came up to me and said “hey, let’s go down to Virginia in a few days from now for some storms. It looks to be severe and the primary threat winds.” At the time, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. When he said, “let’s chase”, I thought of the North Carolina tornado several years back. I immediately called shotgun. Him, myself, and 2 others drove 4 hours south for these storms. Keep in mind at the time I had only one previous experience up close and personal with storms, and that was when I was a very little kid in Ohio.
We get there and begin to watch initiation unfold on both radar and visually. We wait at a church and watch the storm grow upscale to the west as it pushes towards our area. About 20 minutes later, we feel the gust front, then shortly after a downpour of rain. We jump into our car during the downpour and begin to move east with it, trying to stay ahead of it. Shortly after for a reason I can’t remember, we called the chase off relatively quickly and head back to Pennsylvania.
I continue to go through college and chasing local storms when I hear about an internship with the Center for Severe Weather Research. The project they were working on was called TWIRL: Tornadic Winds: In-situ and Radar observations at the Low levels. The project aimed to study tornadoes by deploying pods and DOWs (Doppler on Wheels) in tornadic supercells such that we can correlate pod data with DOW scans.
I was assigned the Scout 3 vehicle for the summer with Tim Marshall and Jacob DeFlitch (along with Katie Griffith, who joined us in the Scout later in the season). We depart Boulder in early May with 3 DOW’s and 3 Scout vehicles, along with two additional vehicles for tools and luggage.
May 9, 2016 will forever be a date that will never leave my mind. This was the day that POD O was deployed into a tornado. I wasn’t with everyone else during the AM briefing, as I was cleaning out the scout vehicle and preparing it for the day. Initially, we weren’t going to chase as the area of interest was full of trees (for reference, the DOWs were not designed to scan trees). 2 of the other interns, Jacob DeFlitch and Adam Springer, convinced the crew to chase this day.
We depart from our hotel to get into position, and then witness a very violent EF-4 tornado near Wynnewood, OK. We deployed all of our pods except one, as we wanted to save it in case we received another opportunity to deploy. This tornado lifted up and then formed into a large multi-vortex EF-3 tornado.
The DOWs were in the distance scanning while the Scout vehicles were following this tornado very closely, looking for opportunities to deploy their pods. Scout 3 found a path to get in front of the tornado while Scout 2 followed closely behind. Power lines came down between the two scout vehicles, leaving Scout 3 on its own. This was the time – there’s no turning back.
With a destructive tornado bearing down on us, we stop and jump out of the vehicle to deploy the pod. I can honestly say I’ve never moved so fast in my entire life. We orient the pod north, take down some important information, then jump back into the vehicle as this thing is bearing down on us. We drive east then dip south, barely avoiding the tornado as it passes behind us.
And on that day, history was made – the first pod under CSWR’s name was hit. Thankfully, we didn’t have to worry much about chaser convergence. I don’t know how it faired for the DOWs, but we do discuss this issue in our latest podcast: Chasers Gone Wild. Be on the lookout for the release on Monday, June 26!