May 11, 2011


Initial Target: Goodland, KS
Departure: Hutchinson, MN 6:30 AM CDT
Arrival: Kearney, NE 4:00 PM CDT
Intercepts: Hastings, NE
Tornadoes: 0
Hail: Non-Severe (not measured)
Wind: Non-Severe (not measured)
Features: None
Miles: 540


Dryline setup across central KS that turned into a quasi cold core play in northwest KS. Intercepted tornado warned cell on morning convection moving north out of Kansas into Nebraska near Hastings, noting little structure. Exited in Kearney, NE after encountering mechanical trouble with the van, just in time to see left rear wheel fly off. Chase ended, stranded in Kearney for night while van was repaired.


Crew and Equipment:

Chase partners: Jennifer Brindley.  Equipment:  Kenwood TH-F6A Tribander, Dell Inspiron Laptop.  Millenicom 760 USB datacard and cradlepoint router, Holux 236 GPS, Robotic camera dome with Sony XR-520V. Canon 60D and EF-S 10-22mm

Photography courtesy: Jennifer Brindley


Wednesday, May 11, looked like it would be the main play of Jennifer Brindley's and my two day run out to the plains. A deep surface low with a nice dryline was forecast to setup over central Kansas. Additional play along a cold front in western Iowa looked possible, as well as a warm front play in Wisconsin. Despite the other targets being closer (better for our marathon run back to be at work the next day), we opted to go all the way and play the target which we thought would have the best chance at a tornado: the plains dryline.

We got up fairly early and left our hotel room in Hutchinson, MN, knowing we had a good 600 miles to go to make our target area. We'd be cutting it close on getting down there in time for initiation. We packed the van and started to roll, and the van gave us our first audible foreshadowing that disaster was about to strike. A loud squeeling and clunking noise emanated from the "Mudpuppy" and I could feel a severe vibration on the steering wheel. I knew the brakes were bad, and we had gotten stuck in the mud the day before so I figured there was mud in the wheels and on the axle causing the vibration and some of the noise coupled with the bad brakes. The noise was so loud and disconcerting that I felt uncomfortable driving the vehicle for any sort of distance and that was I disturbing everyone within a couple of blocks. I figured we'd get the van up to speed though and see how it drove on the highway. Maybe some of the mud would come off, and if not, we'd try to limp it home. We started heading south out of town and once up to about 60 mph, the noise dissipated and the shimmy in the steering wheel subsided. In fact the van drove remarkably smoothly. After a few minutes of testing the water, I decided we'd continue on to our target area.

We stair stepped our way down a series of highways making our way down to I-90 in southern MN, before cutting across the northwestern corner of Iowa. I was taking the highways about as fast as I could, pushing the speed limit, hoping to make our target in time. My luck pushing the speed limit ran out as we approached the town of Hospers, IA. I hit the brakes hard slowing down for the speed zones in town, but it was too late, and an unmarked police car clocked me at 78 in a 65. The officer was extremely friendly, however, and let us go without a citation after a brief chat. We were back on our way without much delay, and now at a slightly slower pace. We cut over into Nebraska just south of Sioux City and took highway 77 south, making good time before we picked up 80 west in Lincoln.

The dryline and surface low were setting up further west than we had anticipated, pushing our target further away making an intercept before initiation more questionable and lengthening our already long haul back home. Cloud cover and showers across the warm sector looked like they would limit instability across the warm sector and kill our chances for a conventional dryline play. The Storm Prediction Center dropped the tornado probabilities from 10 down to 5 and pushed them further west. Our best shot at a tornado now looked like it would be on or just north of the surface low, where modest moisture was advecting around the surface low under cold air aloft. The setup was now more of a cold core play than a convention warm sector play, which would result in smaller, low topped storms, but could still yield photogenic tornadoes.

Driving west on 80, a large band of precipitation was pushing up from the south out of Kansas that had been going since the morning hours. Storms on the back end of the band were flaring up as the early afternoon sun destabilized the airmass ahead of and behind the storms. As we approached Grand Island, one of the cells went tornado warned just 20 miles to our southwest. I wasn't planning on chasing these storms, thinking of them as "morning junk." We just happened to be in the right place at the right time to make an intercept on this cell. I turned on my Spotter Network position tracking software so other chasers and those following along would see us pop up on the storm, maybe wondering how we got into position on the one storm that went tornado warned.

We exited 80 and headed south on highway 281 and cut over east around Doniphan. The storm was moving north and we were driving right through heavy precipitation trying to get a view of the possible tornado, which would be on the back edge of the storm. There wasn't any hail in the line, but the winds got pretty gusty, and I hoped, if there was a tornado, that we wouldn't emerge from the rain to find it dangerously close to us. Our storm shifted amongst neighboring cells, and we got back on 281 and headed toward Hastings, breaking out of the line just north of town.

There was no rain free base or other supercell structure when we emerged from the back end of the line. Instead there was a large whale's mouth, and ground scraping plumes of scud. It looked dramatic, but I knew there was basically no chance of a tornado coming out of this mess. I stopped to let Brindley get a few pictures and then we headed back up 281 to continue on to our target, which was now looking more like Goodland, KS.

My chase buddy Adam Lucio was out with Phil Bates and his production crew, whom I had chased with last year. I was hoping to meet up with those guys at the target area or after the chase. The Mudpuppy started acting up again as we headed west on 80, however. A knocking developed from the left rear side of the car and a bad shudder. I exited at the next stop and looked at all the wheels and under the car but couldn't find anything obviously wrong. The noise was a new addition to the long list of creeks, groans, and vibrations the van had picked up this season. We got back on 80 and the noise got louder and louder to the point that it was distracting us from everything we were doing. Something was significantly wrong with the vehicle, so I decided to call the chase and get the van checked out. I called Adam and told him we wouldn't be meeting up due to car trouble and exited at the next decently sized town with some services: Kearney, Nebraska.

We pulled into the first parking lot off the main highway through Kearney and I made a couple calls around town to see which shops were open and could take a look at the van on short notice. I found one place in the center of town that could take us right away. We never made it. Not more than a couple blocks from where we stopped, I heard a loud ping! I looked left and saw the entire left rear wheel pop off of the van, and then in cartoon fashion fly straight up into the air several feet, and bounce a few times while rolling along side the van.

The wheel hit the curb on the median, bounced up and landed in the center of the median. The van came down on the wheel-less corner. I had enough steering left to maneuver the van off the road, but no braking power so we coasted to a stop.

While we gathered our thoughts and started looking for somebody to call, the Kearney police showed up. They were extremely friendly and helpful, called us a tow, retrieved the wheel from the median, and stayed with us until the tow arrived.


The folks at the towing and repair shop were also very friendly. They drove us around town to see if we could get a rental as we weren't sure if it would be worth it to repair the van. It wound up being cheaper just to have the van repaired, so we had the van towed back to the shop and got dropped off at a motel to spend the night.


We grabbed some dinner at the hotel's restaurant and then spent the rest of the night bumming around town. We even had some free entertainment: somebody in a pizza slice costume was dancing around to attract customers at the pizza hut across the street.




Losing an entire wheel was the most catastrophic end to a chase I've had. Despite being stranded in the middle of Nebraska before we even had a chance to make it to our target area, we made the most of our trip and still had fun bumming around in Kearney. We wound up not missing much storm wise, as a few low topped, cold core like storms went up in northwest Kansas. Although fairly photogenic, none of them produced tornadoes. Of course the Iowa target did wind up producing, and we probably would have made it home before the wheel fell off if we had chased the Wisconsin target.

Lessons Learned: 

  • Don't drive hundreds of miles with a vehicle making questionable noises.
  • Check the tightness of the lugnuts when getting wheel noise.
  • Kearney, NE is a great town with friendly folks and plenty of services.