May 22, 2012


Initial Target: Minot, ND
Departure: Olathe, KS KOJC 12:00 pm
Arrival: Minot, ND KMOT 9:00 pm
Intercepts: Minot, ND
Tornadoes: 0
Hail: Non-Severe (not measured)
Wind: Non-Severe (not measured)
Features: Wall Cloud, RFD Gust Front, Updraft Base


First storm chase in an airplane. Targeted north central North Dakota for afternoon initiation of isolated tornadic supercells initiating on a warm front/dryline triple point. Took off from KOJC, Olathe, KS in a Cessna 182 with Caleb Elliott at the controls, Phil Bates shooting video in the front, and me running data and photograph from the backseat. Stopped in Yankton, SD and Bismarck, ND for fuel. Storms initiated northwest of Minot and flew in for the intercept. Missed brief, uncondensed spinup tornado, but circled storm encountering moderate turbulence under flanking line gust front. Circled in storm inflow as wall cloud cloud developed without spinning up tornado. Called it a chase as fuel ran low and headed to Minot for fuel, dinner, and a room, encountering moderate turbulence after leaving the storm, and landing slightly airsick and exhausted.

Crew and Equipment:

Chase partners: Caleb Elliott and Phil Bates.  Equipment:  2010 Cessna 182S with Garmin G1000. Dell Inspiron Laptop.  Millenicom 760 USB datacard, Holux 236 GPS, Canon 60D with EF-S 10-22mm, 50mm, and Sony HDR-XR500v.




Warning to pilots:

I don't get preachy in my logs too often, telling people what they can and cannot do, but I feel that a few words of caution are necessary before I dive into this chase log. I've had several people tell me I'm crazy and that aerial storm chasing is extremely dangerous. Without the proper precautions, aerial storm chasing is indeed crazy and extremely dangerous. With the proper precautions, I think it can be done safely and effectively. At no point did we fly through or under any storms. We maintained VFR flight conditions throughout the flight, operating in clear air, and maintaining an escape route away from the storm to an airport in that clear air. Together, Caleb and I are very experienced in both flying and storm chasing and went to great lengths to remove ourselves from most of the hazards of chasing storms in an airplane. No pilot should attempt an aerial storm chase without being intimately familiar with supercell structure and forecasting severe weather.

I've always dreamed of combining my two life long interests: storms and aviation. Aerial storm chasing has been done before and decades ago, but it still remains a fringe endeavour, attempted by only a few. Pilots generally go to great lengths to avoid storms, and storm chasers unfamiliar with flying scoff at the idea of operating a small aircraft in the proximity of severe weather at the mercy of the winds. As both a pilot of and a storm chaser, I've spent the past few years thinking about the feasibility of aerial storm chasing. I've observed many situations while chasing where an airplane could have easily and safely operated in the clear air surrounding a supercell.

I've also daydreamed about the advantages of having an airplane while chasing. Not bound to the road grid, and having to worry about finding a road that will get you close to your target, whether it will be paved or washed out, and if trees and hills and will prevent you from seeing anything, you are free to fly around your storm without the hindrances of obstructions on the ground. With all other chasers confined to the ground and all other sane pilots avoiding the weather, there is no traffic to slow you down. Storm motion northeast at 60 mph, an unchaseable combination from the ground, is no problem for small aircraft such as Cessnas which cruise faster than 120 mph. The view from the vantage point is the best part though. Looking at a storm or tornado eye to eye would be spectacular.

Of course aerial storm chasing isn't all advantages. An encounter with baseball sized hail while chasing on the ground in a car can cost you your windshield. You're out a couple hundred bucks and maybe the rest of the chase. Such an encounter in a small airplane could be fatal. Severe wind shear, downdrafts, and updrafts pose an even greater threat. Winds with a 100 mph vertical component can push a small plane into the ground or propel it out of control into the storm's updraft. Severe turbulence can cause structural damage to an aircraft caught inside of an updraft where visibility is zero. While the airplane is designed to take a lightning strike without a catastrophic result, it's something I wouldn't want to test in the field. Dangers aside, the logistics of aerial storm chasing require more planning than a ground based chase, having to do preflight planning to make sure you have enough fuel for your chase, picking out airports to use, and operating around various airspaces.

With the right planning and precautions, I believe all of these dangers can be avoided, however. Certain setups favor isolated, discrete cells surrounded by sunny blue skies. On such days you could operate a mile or more away from the storm, under the clear air, clear of the hail core, and above any ground based wind shear. Never flying under or through any storm should also remove the threats posed by updrafts and downdrafts. My initial thoughts to approaching aerial chasing involved taking a plane up and chasing some cumulus, working up to towering cumulus, some garden variety showers, small storms, and eventually supercells, slowly and progressively gaining experience. Through the chaser community, I got in touch with Caleb Elliott, another storm chaser and pilot. Caleb is a much more experienced pilot than me, being a commercial jet pilot and flight instructor. I have a little more long distance chase experience, and after talking for awhile and meeting briefly in the field we decided that we had an ideal combination of experience for an aerial chase team.

We started kicking around ideas and planning an aerial trip months in advance. I invited Phil Bates, a videographer who runs a production company called Art Beats out of Oregon to come along with us to get shots and help defray the costs of renting and running an airplane. We picked a week at the end of May to do a five day aerial chase trip. We picked out a 2010 Cessna 182S out of Olathe, KS as our chase vehicle. The airplane features a fancy glass cockpit with a Garmin G1000 and XM satellite weather. The electronic display and weather information would make flying and navigating near storms a lot easier and also provide a nice backup for weather data in case my cellular data on the laptop didn't work out. Caleb, with all the flight experience, would be our pilot in command, handling all the flying and flight planning. Phil was riding shotgun to get shots out the side window with his super high end Red Epic video camera. I would be riding backseat running camcorders, still cameras, and a laptop with my normal ground chasing software including Grlevel3 and Street Atlas (even though we didn't need the roads) while streaming our position and live video back to the internet. I could get pictures and video for Caleb and I, while providing navigation to and from storms and other weather updates.

Phil picked out May 23 for the start of our aerial chase trip. I watched nervously as the models flip flopped between a trough and a ridged pattern that week. A few days out, it looked like the week would feature some weak troughing in the western plains, with some modest shear and lift for storms, decent moisture return and moderate instability. Capping looked to be an issue, and the trough seemed a bit displaced from the better moisture and instability. We were looking at a string of marginal setups. I wanted to hold off for a better week, but the string of marginal setups was enough for Phil so we were a go. In hindsight it was a good thing too. The season went belly up shortly afterwards.

Tuesday, May 22 looked like a chase day, with a warm front draped across northern North Dakota, some southwest flow, and decent instability. Shear looked a little like like a typical "day before the day" type event, but I definitely thought it should be part of our chase week, and would at least make a good practice run. I talked the group into meeting up a day early, we booked the plane from the rental company and we were set to go.

I picked Phil up from the Kansas City airport the night before. We headed out to the airport in Olathe, KS bright and early. The Storm Prediction Center issued a slight risk for North Dakota with 5% tornado probabilities. Not a huge day, but the models were showing isolated supercells and the chance for a tornado or two. It looked like a great setup for us to get our feet wet in aerial chasing. Phil and I had the folks at the airport pull our plane out for us, and gas it up to three quarters full so we wouldn't be overweight, while we waited for Caleb to join us after doing the flight planning.

Left to right: Caleb Elliott, Phil Bates, and me in front of our chase vehicle, a Cessna 182.

Caleb arrived, we finished loading up our gear, did a walk around the plane to make sure we were good to go, and then piled in for a long flight to North Dakota.

Caleb going over some last minute details before we depart:

We took off heading direct to our first stop for fuel in Yankton, SD. It was a gorgeous clear day in Olathe, and perfect flying weather.

The Garmin G1000 with moving map display:


View from the backseat as we fly north toward South Dakota:

I setup my laptop in the backseat with GPS puck and cellular datacard. This is the software I normally use on the ground. It was funny to see us whipping along at more than 160 mph over the Missouri River, which is normally a huge obstacle for ground based chasers. We passed directly over where Jennifer Brindley and I had seen a tornado a year and a day ago in 2011 between White Cloud and Iowa Point, KS. I switched on my Spotter Network and was able to send out sporadic position updates across the internet while we had data at altitude.
My setup in the backseat:
Phil doing some practice shots with his Red Epic video camera: The front seat offered a nice shooting position with Phil steadying the camera on a monopod wedged between the seat and the door. The high wing and wing strut of the Cessna were viewing obstructions we had to work around, but Phil was able to get a pretty clean shot pointing the camera slightly behind.

We made good time to our first fuel stop in Yankton, South Dakota. The best chase days are definitely not the best flying days. What scares me more than the storms themselves is landing and taking off in an environment favorable for storms. The unstable air makes the ride bouncy, the turbulence knocking the plane around and unsettling stomachs. Worse, the surface winds are howling and gusty, which makes for difficult and potentially dangerous take offs and landings. We had a brutally gusty crosswind coming into Yankton. I gulped hard as we came in sideways, crabbing into the wind, the plane bouncing up and down. We crossed over the numbers. The right rear wheel, and only the right rear wheel, touched down first. We bounced on the one wheel a couple times. Finally the left wheel touched down. "Nice landing, Caleb!", Phil said. Our nose wheel was still high in the air as Caleb worked the rudder to keep us on the runway, fighting the crosswind. "It ain't over yet!", Caleb replied. Finally our nose touched down and were coasting to a stop and I let out a sigh of relief. The crosswind landings are probably the hairiest part of aerial storm chasing.

Yankton had a dusty, sleepy little airport. There was one line guy running the joint. We had him bring us back up to three quarters tanks, while Phil and I took the courtesy car, a ratty minivan into town to grab some lunch. We went to the subway, the same one I had been at on May 5 earlier in the year, and I would stop there once more before the year was done. We gassed up, ate some grub in the office lounge, and were back in the air making for our next fuel stop: Bismarck, ND.

Flying direct to Bismarck, we passed within a mile of Bowdle, SD. I had a seen an EF4 wedge tornado narrowly miss the town two years ago to the date. We circled the town looking for signs of the damage path, but it had since vanished.

Looking south at Bowdle, SD, our view is from roughly where the tornado had tracked:

We made it to Bismarck, ND, a large regional airport with commercial jet traffic. The crosswind wasn't nearly as bad and the wide runways were nice. We piled out of the plane, already getting tired from the trip after spending almost 5 hours in the plane.

My rather disheveled backseat setup with camcorder suction cupped to the window, laptop on the seat, power inverter under the seat, and wires running everywhere.

The Bismarck airport was hopping with traffic flying in and out due to the oil boom. Phil and I headed into the office while our plane was refueled, grabbing some free popcorn, while Caleb cooled his nerves with a cigarette. At about 6pm, while we were waiting in the office, storms initiated a good 100 miles to our north. We hurried up in the office, I grabbed another bag of popcorn for the road, and we were rolling. The tower cleared us for a north departure and we flew direct to our storm.
The storm was severe warned before we could get airborne, and tornado warned while we were en route. It took us 45 minutes to close the 100 mile gap on the storm, incredible time by chase standards, but it was an agonizingly long time to wait for the intercept. Below 3,000 feet we had a decent internet connection and I was able to get radar updates on the laptop, plotting us directly to the storm and updating Caleb with our position relative to the precipitation core and gust front. Our storm finally came into a view, but we were a little too late for the tornado that many ground based chasers caught. A small funnel had formed under the base with a brief dust whirl underneath. A "bird fart" tornado but it wound up being the only one the storm produced. We were just a little too late getting there to catch it, although it was so small we might not have had much of a view at the distance we were holding from the storm.

Our first view of a storm from the air:

The storm appeared that it had gusted out. A large gust front extended south from the main updraft, marked by a flanking line of convection. Sunlight streamed in behind it in bright beams, illuminating points on the ground like spot lights. The rear flanking downdraft clear slot notch is visible here on the right. The forward flanking precipitation core is visible as the hazier area on the far right where the bulk of the rain from the storm is falling.

We circled a couple times in front of the backlit base without much happening underneath the storm. Seeing how sunny the back end of the storm was, I suggested we fly around to the back end of the storm to see if we could get some high contrast front lit views. We flew well south of the storm and underneath the gust front where the convection above it was not too deep. We were still greeted by some moderate turbulence, however, the plane getting knocked around as we passed under the flanking line. On the other side of the storm, the ground was lit up well, but contrast in the clouds was poor, the air hazy and reflecting too much light for us to really see anything on the back end. We circled and flew back under the flanking line, catching up with the storm and getting back into the inflow notch.
Under the shadow of the anvil and in the inflow portion of the storm, the air was very smooth and clear of precipitation. We were able to get stable shots of the storm's base without any bumps or rain interfering with the view. Looking southwest at the rear flanking gust front and updraft tower:
We made circles in front of the base. During one of our turns I noticed a wall cloud starting to form as the storm's updraft ingested its own rain cooled air. Things were starting to get interesting! I shot some video and stills out the back window of the plane before we completed the turn.
Our south leg of the circles gave Phil and I the best views of the updraft. We held a position 2-3 miles away from the updraft and 1-2 miles south of the forward flanking precipitation core. We bumped the forward flanking core once and got some rain on the plane. Precipitation was light and we got a smattering of small, very soft hail. The stuff probably would have melted before it hit the ground, falling as large cold rain drops. We made efforts to avoid such encounters as hazardous downdrafts are associated with showery precipitation. Our wall cloud seemed like it had matured now. A couple points formed underneath, and we thought they may have been brief, small funnels. They didn't last long, however, and could have just as easily been upward condensing scud.

A couple more circles in front of the wall cloud and the northern end of it dipped dramatically low to the ground. The pointy feature looked impressive but was non tornadic.

My internet data was working fairly well at this point and we were actually able to live stream video to the internet, viewers tuning into ChaserTV to catch a glimpse of a wall cloud being chased from the air.

Turning east as we finished another pass in front of the wall cloud, looking southwest at the rear flanking gust front of the storm, lit up in golden shades by the setting sun:
The wall cloud seemed to retreat again. It was getting late, about 8:30 now, our storm was fizzling and we were starting to get low on fuel. The structure was still photogenic, but we decided to call it a chase and head for the nearest airport with services, and nearby food and lodging: Minot International. One last look at our first aerial chasing storm, looking northwest at at a horseshoe shaped updraft base:

The gust front of the storm extended many miles south of the main updraft. We flew through it heading to Minot and were greeted again by moderate turbulence. Away from the storm, not having to focus on aerial chasing, and with the fatigue setting in from the long flight, I realized how exhausted and prone to air sickness I was at this point. The bumps really got to my stomach and I was getting pretty green. It took us maybe 20 minutes to fly into Minot but, sick and exhausted, it seemed to take much longer than that.

Sunset convection:

Caleb did a great job landing and we taxied over to the main office for gas and a tie down for the night. The long hours in the air had taken their toll and we were complete zombies when we stumbled into the office. The woman behind the desk had to ask us questions a couple of times as nobody would answer in the stupor we found ourselves in.
The airport folks helped us find lodging. Every hotel in town was booked except for one rather junky motel across the street that a had a couple rooms available. The town was swamped with people coming in for an oil convention. The airport lineman was nice enough to drive us over to the motel where we dropped our stuff off and then grabbed dinner at the Hardees next door, finally relaxing and chatting about how our flight had went.



Despite missing a brief tornado, our first storm chase in an airplane had turned out to be a rather successful venture. I was skeptical about the logistics and safety of such an endeavor, but we were pleasantly surprised to discover that a simple circle pattern in front of the updraft base within the inflow provided great views and smooth air in which to shoot video. Catching a nicely lit supercell and wall cloud from the air, and, more importantly, returning back to the ground safely, made our first aerial chase a success. We learned a great deal about storm structure from the air, how to approach and film the storm, and how our equipment and data worked in the air. All valuable lessons for future aerial chases with


Lessons Learned: 

  • Internet data works fairly reliably below 3000' feet AGL, and there is limited data several thousand feet above that.

  • Hold at least 2 miles east of the storms updraft base and RFD gust front and 1 mile south of the FFD for smooth and shear/precipitation free air when aerial chasing.