May 10, 2010


Initial Target: Medford, OK
Departure: Mannford, OK 9:30 am
Arrival: Stillwater, OK 9:00 pm
Intercepts: Perry, OK
Tornadoes: 0
Hail: Non-Severe (not measured)
Wind: Non-Severe (not measured)
Features: Possible Funnel
Miles: 241


First day in a multi-day chase trip with Extreme Chase Tours. High risk dryline setup. Targeted I-35 corridor in northern OK for initiation of fast moving, yet prolific tornado producing storms. Left Stillwater by early afternoon after storms initiated in northern OK. Intercepted tornado warned storm southwest of Perry, noting distant lowering and possible funnels. Moved north on cell as it passed to east at 60 mph, noting a possible funnel before storm was lost due to roads and storm motion. Called chase off noting uncatchable storm speeds and stopped in Stillwater for the night with dinner at Applebee's.

Crew and Equipment:

Chase team included Extreme Chase Tours.  Equipment:  Kenwood TH-F6A Tribander, Dell Inspiron Laptop.  Kyocera data card and router, Holux 236 GPS, Robotic camera dome with Sony XR-520V.






The morning of Monday, May 10, looked like the biggest event of 2010 was about to unfold. A 90 knot midlevel jet was forecast to cross over a strong low level jet and backed surface winds, with a strongly unstable atmosphere over Oklahoma and southern Kansas. The extreme speed and directional shear, and unstable, uncapped air mass pointed to an environment that would erupt early with numerous supercells, each capable of producing multiple, long track, significant tornadoes. The Storm Prediction Center issued a high risk.

Wednesday, the week before, I got a call from Lanny Dean, a well known chaser whom I had only known through the online community. He runs a storm chasing tour company and needed a support driver at the last second to fill an empty spot on his upcoming tour. He offered to pay gas and lodging. Well, I was going to be out chasing anyway, and this would be a great learning experience, so I jumped on it, and was on the road to Oklahoma Friday morning. We met up with the tour on Friday night and introduced ourselves over dinner. Chad Berryhill would be driving the main tour van, Jill Gilardi a meteorologist from Springfield, MO, and Matt Gingery, another chaser would be in the support vehicle with me. Our clients, Phil and Annette, run a production company called Artbeats and were out to get high resolution video of supercells and tornadoes. The weekend was forecasted to be cool and quiet across the southern plains, so we just milled around Lanny's hometown of Mannford, getting some miscellaneous shots of clouds and flags that Phil could sell for stock video. I spent the nights at Lanny's house so they could save money not putting me up in a hotel, and we stayed pretty close to town the next few days, which I didn't think much of since there was no weather.

Everyone started to get excited Sunday night. The weather models had a dangerous mix of parameters that pointed to a potential tornado outbreak. It was the best mix of shear and instability that the plains had seen the entire year. The next several days looked like they would be active in the southern plains as well. "What a great week to book a tour," I thought. Lanny's house turned into a madhouse that night. Matt and Jill stopped over for the night including a couple other chasers. Everyone was buzzing with talk about the next day and it turned into a late night with people coming and going, checking the outlooks, and weather models.

Monday morning we loaded the vans at Lanny's house and headed over to Stillwater to pick up Phil and Annette from their hotel where Lanny gave us a safety lecture and we talked about the forecast. It looked bleak outside, overcast and cool. I'd seen many high risk days start out like this, however, and knew that things would quickly change as the day progressed. We'd have a formidable caravan on this chase: The two vans including mine made up the tour, and we were being by joined by Jeff Smith and Brian DePriest, each in their own vehicles, as well as a meteorologist and cameraman from a news station out of St. Louis in their own car. I was worried the five car caravan would be tough to manage. We stopped for breakfast/lunch at the Old Town Cafe.

After breakfast we milled around in front of the diner for a good while waiting for conditions to improve further west. The plan was to wait for the dryline to light up across Oklahoma and head west intercepting whatever was coming our way. Lanny talking to Steve Templeton and his cameraman about the days' plans:

Phil filming the group with a video camera mounted in a ring that keeps the image level, and Jill checking the current conditions on her phone:

A particularly dangerous situation tornado watch went up from Kansas down through Oklahoma and storms started to fire in Kansas and northern Oklahoma. We probably should have been on the dryline at this point, ready to intercept, but the group hoped to catch later development, close to our location. We didn't know it at the time, but the decision would cost us our shot at a tornado intercept.

When storms started to fire further down the dryline we loaded up the caravan and headed west toward I-35. Matt Gingery was in the van with me as we headed west. En route we saw an awesome supercells developing near Wakita with reported tornadoes and an awesome hook echo. Matt and I figured we could make an intercept if we raced north up 35, but the caravan was passing the onramp and set on intercepting new development before we could suggest it over the radio. West of 35, I realized that lead tour van didn't have mapping software, and I was asked to take the lead and navigate for the whole caravan. We stopped just west of 35 to let new cells to the west mature, while, unbeknownst to us, the Wakita storm continued to put tornado after tornado.
A cell to our west went tornado warned, and Lanny directed the caravan north towards Perry, OK for the intercept. We stopped nine miles short of the rain free base, however, and were left with a distant, low contrast view of the storm. With the storm racing northeast, we were also too far south still to let the storm to come to us, and would remain several miles away from it.
"Y'all chasin' stoooorms?" a local pulling a trailer asked us with a lower lip filled with chew. He reminded me of sheriff J. W. Pepper in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die
Looking overhead at some mammatus underneath an anvil:

We stayed at our spot for several minutes watching the RFB pass by to our northeast. There appeared to be some motion under the base and a few in the group were exclaiming "funnel!" but we were so damn far from the storm's base that I don't think anyone could really say for certain what it was underneath the storm.

Annette and Phil work their Red, a video camera with 4,000 pixels horizontal resolution, while Lanny points out storm structure to them, and Steve on the right shoots pictures:

One of the apparent "funnels", which to me looked like nothing more than an unidentifiable lowering. After pushing the group to move in closer, we finally decided to go north up the gravel road and catch the storm as it passed to our north.
En route a bowl shaped lowering developed underneath the storm which was now a good five miles to our north and still hauling ass northeast at 60 mph. We got up to an east west highway and stopped again to watch the storm, just as the back end of the hook slid away to our east. There was another pointy lowering at this point, which might have been a funnel but I was unable to get a picture of it. With no good road options around Perry and now behind the storm, our chase of that particular cell was over.
I looked further south at a monster storm that was coming into the Oklahoma City metro area and was determining if we could make it south in time for the intercept. We were held up several times as the tour did not want to core punch some sub severe storms to our south. We pulled off in a gas station and waited for them to pass, at which point it was obvious we were so far behind the game that our chase was over. We stopped along the highway to let Phil and Annette shoot some cloud timelapse before we headed back to Stillwater for dinner and our hotel. At the Applebee's I saw some of the tornado footage we missed on the TV and drank my sorrows away with a beer.




My first chase with the tour group was a devastating bust. We missed the storm of the day that was a few miles to our north. Numerous chasers got video of several tornadoes including a dramatic multivortex tornado. The storm that went through the OKC area also put down a very large tornado, while our storm may have produced a brief tornado before and after we intercepted it. Had we gotten out to the dryline earlier and chased a little more aggressively I think we could have easily made the Wakita storm and bagged a few tornadoes. Instead our lumbering and overly cautious caravan proved too slow and unwieldy to make an intercept on a high risk day with screaming storm motions. It was my worst bust of the year up to that point, and I just hoped we could make it up the next few days.



Lessons Learned: 

  • Tours with large caravans are too unwieldy on high risk days with fast storm motions.