May 25, 2012


Initial Target: Salina, KS
Departure: Olathe, KS KOJC 1:00 pm
Arrival: Olathe, KS KOJC 11:30 pm
Intercepts: Russel, KS Rush Center, KS
Tornadoes: 0
Hail: None
Wind: Non-Severe (not measured)
Features: Updraft Tower, Wall Cloud, Outflow Plume


Third and final aerial storm chase in week long trip with Caleb Elliott and Phil Bates. Targeted triple point and points east from Russel, KS to Salina, KS for late afternoon initiation of discrete tornadic supercells. Took off from KOJC by early afternoon making for Salina, but diverted to Hutchinson after warm front convection precluded VFR flight into Salina. Refueled and waited for initiation in Hutchinson, departing after the first blips appeared on the radar near the triple point west of Russel. Intercepted high based supercell with wall cloud. Flew many circles in front of storm noting dramatic outflow plumes, but no tornado. Moved to Tail End Charlie after wall cloud on first storm fell apart, noting gorgeous sunset updraft tower, mammatus, and wall cloud but again no tornado. Had to abandon chase to get fuel in Great Bend at dusk, missing several tornadoes. Intercepted storm near Rush Center after dark with terrific lightning display, but contrast was too poor to discern anything under the base so headed back to Olathe.

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.




Friday was my third aerial storm chase with Caleb Elliott and Phil Bates on a week long trip to the plains, which was my first such venture into chasing storms in an airplane. We were just starting to get the hang of it, after our first attempts on the 22nd and 23rd, and taking a badly needed day off on the 24th. We were super excited to be out again, and Friday's setup looked like the best yet. A dryline was forecast to setup across western Kansas, a warm front draping along I-70 to the east, with the triple point near the Russel area and a trough just starting to push in from the west. Modest speed shear and some question about capping lead SPC to keep the tornado probabilities fairly modest at 5%.

Despite the modest slight risk, I was very optimistic about the setup, and expected a couple of discrete supercells to go up on the triple point by later afternoon with a shot at producing a tornado as they interacted with the better directional shear along the warm front. We'd have great visibility on the dryline, clear skies around our storms, and slow storm speeds. It was the perfect setup for an aerial chase.

Phil and I left the hotel in the morning after running through the model data on my laptop and eating a continental breakfast. We arrived at Johnson Co. Executive and had the flight line staff pull our plane out onto the ramp for us. We were getting pretty good at setting our gear up in the plane by now: wiring laptops, GPS pucks, data cards, inverters, and camera mounts. Our initial target was Russel to Salina along I-70. We wanted to stay a little to the east in case the warm front lit up east of the triple point. The aircraft would allow us to easily play both targets. With a cruise speed of about 120 mph, we could get half way across Kansas in an hour.

Caleb met up with us by early afternoon, did the rest of our flight planning and preflight check. We were good to go. I popped some ginger pills to calm my stomach in case we hit turbulence like we did on the 23rd near Omaha, and then we were off.


Warm front convection along I-70 didn't allow us to fly VFR to Salina like we had originally planned. We flew above an overcast layer of clouds and diverted to Hutchinson where it was clear. While aerial chasing, you never want to fly above clouds that could potentially develop into thunderstorms. The updrafts can easily rise faster than you can get out of the way, trapping you on all sides with towering storms, and no escape path. Always maintain an escape route through clear air when aerial storm chasing to avoid a potentially deadly situation. Luckily our warm front convection was short, stable cumulus, and we wouldn't have to worry about huge storms erupting from it until hours later.

We landed in Hutchinson and headed into the office to plan out the rest of our chase while the plane was refueled to three quarters tanks so we wouldn't be overweight. I checked the models again, and they continued to show some storms firing near the triple point by late afternoon. Skies were alarmingly sunny where we were, however. Normally you'd like to see a nice cumulus field building by mid afternoon. Visible satellite indicated only a thin line of cumulus near the triple point. I was worried that we might cap bust. The airport office had a delicious array of cookies, and I chewed down several chocolate, chocolate chip cookies while explaining to Phil and Caleb the battle plan. Tornado parameters were maximized right on the triple point, which was strongly destabilized. I anticipated that when (or if) storms fired, that they would explode rapidly, and in an environment already primed for tornadoes, would rapidly organize into tornadic supercells. 80 miles southeast of the triple point, we'd want to be ready at a moment's notice to take off and intercept the first sign of initiation. The waiting was agonizing. Phil would ask for updates, I'd try to be enthusiastic about the thin cumulus line we were seeing, hoping it would do something, while Caleb would pace outside on the ramp having a smoke. We waited a couple hours watching light blue colored blips on the radar indicating where some clouds on the dryline were, potential storm seeds, and I hoped one of those blips would be the start of a massive supercell. A blip with a darker blue color, meaning a slightly stronger radar return, appeared. We watched it to see if it was just bubbling convection on the dryline, clutter, or our storm. Then I got a text from fellow chaser Brad Goddard who was at the triple point with a visual of the convection: "There it goes!" The next radar update came in almost immediately afterwards and we had a 30 dbz return showing some green on the radar. Our storm was going up! We scrambled to the plane, fired it up, and we're rolling down the taxiway asking for take off clearance while we were still putting our seat belts on.

We flew direct to our storm and were there in about a half hour. The storm was still maturing when we arrived, with a large updraft tower and developing wall cloud. It looked quite dramatic on our initial pass, but the storm would need some time to further organize before it would be able to produce a tornado.

We started our circular pattern in front of the storm.

Looking west, over our tail, at a rather shelfy lowering under the updraft base and flat farmland of central Kansas:
Phil pops the window open and sets up his Red on a monopod to shoot out the window, while I snap a few stills, video, and watch the laptop from the backseat:

We make a few passes in the inflow region east and southeast of the storm. The shape of the wall cloud improves and I'm able to snag a dramatic wide angle shot of it on the northbound leg of our loop:

The national weather service issued a tornado warning on the cell. Things were really starting to heat up.

As the storm matured, a rear flanking downdraft slammed into the ground from under the updraft base and fanned out, kicking up huge dust plumes. The storm's updraft got a hold of the dust plume and drew it back up into the base of the storm. This can be a precursor to tornado development, so we watched the dust plumes and base closely for any areas of tight rotation. The column of dust connecting with the storm's base almost looked like a tornado, but it appeared to just be dramatic looking outflow as there was no rotation.

We made a few passes as the outflow plumes fanned out away from the storm, leaving behind a shriveling wall cloud that would slowly deteriorate as the storm gusted out.

Looking west at a wall cloud and on the right side, background of the image you can see the sharply defined forward flanking precipitation core:

As an experiment, we flew up a few thousand feet higher to see if the views of the midlevel updraft structure were any better. We found it quite hazy, however, and our views lack luster. The CG's were extremely impressive from that height though, but I wasn't able to snag any stills with my camera due to the short exposure time in the daylight. We descended back down to check out the base and found a smaller wall cloud but with rather interesting looking yet scuddy lowerings:

More outflow continues to fan out from under the wall cloud, evident as dust plumes on the left side of the image:

We made sure we were well above and east of this outflow. Flying into it in the Cessna could be catastrophic with severe turbulence and wind shear.

We were flying over Russel, KS at about this time. Circling over I-70 we could see cars and trucks on the highway driving right underneath the tornado warned storm's wall cloud. You can see this in the video posted above.

A dramatic perspective of some rising scud in the deteriorating wall cloud. It made for some great pictures, but our storm was starting to die. I had such high hopes for this chase, and thought the triple point cells would have a great shot at producing a tornado or two by the warm front.

Our storm lost its tornado warning, was starting to look less organized on the radar, and the wall cloud disappeared, leaving behind a quiet updraft base. A couple of cells had gone up to the southwest, Tail End Charlie looking the most promising. We turned tail to our storm and made for the new development.

Looking northwest at streaky precipitation bands glowing in the lowering sun before we abandon our storm:

We passed the middle storm in the line and it appeared to be hazy and high precipitation. We continued on to the southern most cell and were greeted by a beautiful sight. The sun had dropped below the updraft base, illuminating classic supercell structure. A beaver tail stretching off to the northeast, striated updraft tower, an attempt at a developing wall cloud and rear flanking downdraft behind it:

Having to spend a half hour flying to our initial storm, doing all of those circles and now flying to this new storm, we were running really low on gas, and Caleb warned us that we'd have to leave soon. The structure on this storm was amazing and the lighting was perfect so I pleaded to stay as long as we possibly could.

Looking southwest as we circle in front of the storm's updraft tower, mammatus and anvil stretching overhead:

Another shot at the gorgeous anvil, mammatus, and southern end of the updraft tower. As we turned north the left wing would go up revealing this amazing sight and I had a moment or two to snag a shot of it.
A shot of the developing wall cloud and streaky rear flanking rain curtains.
Wide angle shot of the entire supercell, left wing high as we turn right:
Caleb watching our position as he expertly pilots the plane in front of the storm:

We had circled the storm several times, but it would not produce a tornado for us. Running on fumes now, Caleb said we absolutely had to leave to get fuel. Chasers on the ground have the luxury of being able to stop to conserve fuel, or head to the nearest town and fill up. In the aircraft, we have to keep circling, however, and flying to an airport to fuel up is a very time consuming detour.

We got one last look at our beautiful storm before we turned east toward Great Bend, Kansas, the nearest airport with fuel.

It took us maybe 15 minutes to fly to Great Bend. The airport was now closed, but they had self service fuel pumps that were open 24 hours. I lost data as we left our storm, and so had no idea what was going on until we landed and we got our cell signal back. My map lit up with a string of tornado reports. A nice backlit tornado had developed after we left the storm. i was completely devastated. I broke the news to the others when we got out of the plane to fuel up.

All of us completely dejected, Phil stares off to the north at lightning from the storm we left, visible on the horizon in the twilight, as Caleb sets up the self service fuel pump:

We fueled up and tornado reports were still coming in. We had told ourselves we would not be aerial chasing at night, and yet the storm remained discrete with clear air all around it. We could easily approach the storm from a safe distance, and we were desperate to get a tornado now. We took off and cautiously headed north toward Rush Center, KS where our storm was tracking. Brilliant bolts of cloud to ground lightning lit up the storm, but we could not see underneath the base. Flying high, the boundary layer near the ground had become like pea soup and we could not see what was going on underneath the base of the storm. Backlighting from lightning was not enough to pierce the haze, despite the brilliant foreground flashes.
With the lightning crashing all around us, no view of base structure, and the reduced situational awareness of flying at night, Caleb's nerves were pushed to the max. We had enough and decided to call it a chase. We turned east making for home, climbing a few thousand above the boundary layer where visibility was good and the ride smooth. The view, poor from this height earlier, was now surreal. The anvil of the storm stretched overhead, and the haze of the boundary layer looked like a cloud below us. It was as if we were flying through a gigantic cave of clouds. The updraft tower structure was magnificent, brilliantly illuminated by electric stalactites of lightning:
Our view from this vantage was surreal, and yet I was heart broken from having missed the tornado. I had a long, quiet flight in the backseat to think about it. The frustration was so intense I could taste it and I muttered curses under my breath as we flew back.

Trying to capture the otherworldly storm structure and lightning from 8,000 feet above the Kansas landscape helped take my mind off our failure at catching a tornado:

A bolt of cloud to ground lightning strikes ahead of the updraft base, piercing the thick layer of haze near the ground and terminating on the ground:

Our flight home and landing went smoothly, and we arrived well ahead of any weather and to a beautifully balmy evening. We were absolutely beat from our long day of chasing couped up in the plane and disappointment from missing the tornado, and yet were also extremely impressed with the storms and sights that we had seen and most of all thankful that we were back on the ground safely. We had tempted our fates for a third time, riding at the mercy of the winds in a small airplane in front of one of mother nature's most awesome forces, the supercell thunderstorm. We tied up the airplane, said our farewells for the evening, and Phil and I headed to the hotel for the night, Caleb home. We didn't realize it then but this was our last aerial chase for the trip.


Our third attempt at chasing supercells and tornadoes in an airplane was our best aerial chase yet. We had caught two amazing tornado warned supercells with wall clouds, lightning, outflow plumes, and great lighting. Missing the tornado the second storm produced was an agonizing disappointment, however, and one of the worst I had ever experienced while chasing. Still we were extremely proud and impressed with what we had accomplished, and determined to get out there again to get our tornado from the air. In hindsight, we should have flown to Russel after our diversion to Hutchinson, refueled again, and then waited for the first storm to mature, instead of wasting gas flying to the storm and circling it while it was still maturing. This would have given us another half hour or more in front of our second storm, and we probably would have caught the tornado. Hindsight is 20/20, however, and I thought for sure the first storms would quickly mature and produce given the primed environment. The tornadoes that were produced were small but quite photogenic with a brief cone but amazing rope out west of Rush Center, KS follow by a few tornadoes after dark. We learned that preserving gas is of utmost importance and that visibility at night along with the increased stress levels and dangers, just does not make aerial night chasing worth it. Caleb and I are looking to get out there again in the 2013 season for a few aerial chases, hopefully bringing Phil with if he wants another shot at it, and we'll see what opportunities the season brings us.


Lessons Learned: 

  • Preserve fuel for maximized flight time by refueling and waiting at an airport near the storms while they are still maturing.
  • Visibility is too low due to haze, and the stress and dangers too great to effectively chase storms at night in an airplane.