May 9, 2015


Initial Target
Storm Intercepts
Garden City, KS
Vernon, TX 9:14 AM 5/9/2015
Burlington, CO 9:19 PM 5/9/2015
Eads, CO
0 mph
Tornado, Satellite Tornado, Anticyclonic Tornado, Funnel, Double Rainbow


Cold core/warm front play in eastern Colorado and western Kansas. Initially targeted southwest Kansas due to time constraints, but was able to catch initial cold core activity underneath stacked low in eastern Colorado. Intercepted low topped supercell north of Lamar, southeast of Eads noting a string of photogenic tornadoes including one with a double rainbow, concurrent tornadoes, and anticyclonic rope. Storm undercut by shelf cloud and outflow near Cheyenne Wells after producing at least 5 tornadoes. Tire failure north of Cheyenne Wells ended our chase and sent us to Burlington for the night.

Photography courtesy Jennifer Brindley Ubl

Crew and Equipment

Chase partners: Jennifer Brindley Ubl, Phil Bates, Payton Ware. Equipment: Canon 60D, Canon t2i, Canon EFS 10-22, Canon EF 50mm, Sony HDR-xr500v..




Saturday, May 9, would be our most incredible chase of the 2015 season: "The Dream Chase." The setup looked pretty good going into the event. Finally the system we had been chasing for several days was ejecting with a deepening surface low, backed surface winds and strong moisture advection across the eastern Colorado/western Kansas warm sector. It was a favorable pattern for tornadoes.

I was part of a crew working on a Sean Casey IMAX movie, forecasting for and navigating the Doghouse, which is the backup and support vehicle for the armored Tornado Intercept Vehicle. Accompanying me in Doghouse were Jennifer Brindley Ubl and Phil Bates. We found ourselves in Vernon, TX on the morning of May 9. Sean thought the setup warranted bringing out a second shooter for Doghouse so he called Payton Ware who accompanied us in April. He was down in DFW, however, and it would take him hours to catch up with us in Vernon. Justin Walker, Herb Stein, and Sean piled into the TIV and departed for Kansas, while we waited at the hotel. We'd have a serious handicap by starting late and we compensated on our targeting as a result. Our initial target was Garden City, KS which had a favorable mix of shear and instability southwest of the surface low, and hopefully where storms would fire later in the afternoon in a place where we could catch them in time. Points further north along the warm front and closer to the low looked potentially more favorable, but that activity generally fires earlier and was further away. We probably wouldn't make those storms in time.
Loading up our chase vehicle:

The Doghouse is a modified Dodge Ram 2500 with a rotating camera turret and windsheild hail guard.
The camera turret has a hydraulically operated hatch with room for a Red camera and shooter
A seat has been added for the second shooter in the custom built enclosure over the truck bed. It’s not the plushest ride, but comfort is not what it was built for. Unfortunately, it also leaks badly. We learned pretty quick that we needed to stack our luggage and wrap it in heavy plastic or our clothes would get soaked.

Payton arrived about an hour after the TIV departed. Brindley, Payton, and I can be seen discussing the day’s plans through the side window:
We were finally rolling as some morning showers passed overhead. Getting Payton back to his car was our next issue. We had to leave the car someplace that he could easily get to and decided on the Amarillo airport. He followed behind us as we plodded our way up through the Panhandle. The stop was going to cost us more time and we were already pushing it. If we arrived even a few minutes late, the whole effort and expense would be for nothing.
With Payton’s car deposited at the airport lot, the crew of Doghouse was finally assembled. We paused for a 180 degree panoramic inside the vehicle. We were like a battle crew in our battered and chase hardened intercept vehicle, ready to shoot down some tornadoes. And we were armed to the teeth. Payton was shooting on a 5k Red and Phil a 6k Red Dragon, not to mention the assortment of small arms DSLRs and video cameras the rest of us were packing. In terms of video capabilities, we probably had more firepower than had ever been seen before on a tornado chase.
Payton, our turret gunner, manning a position that is loud, cramped, and hot (or cold):
The tornado watch went up long before we even made it out of Texas. We would be pushing speed limits to make it in time.
We hauled north through the Texas Panhandle toward Boise City in the Oklahoma Panhandle. We had storm initiation by early afternoon northwest of Campo, Colorado. The Colorado target always fires first, under uncapped air, right on the low, where the lapse rates are steepest and the lift already in place. Thanks to Texas speed limits, 287 is a fast highway, and it took us directly toward the developing storms, which were actually out of the way from our initial Kansas target.

Gorgeous Scenery and Skies
4 miles NNW of Boise City, OK
2:18 PM
We cleared the canyons and plateaus of the Texas Caprock and were flying across the pancake flat Oklahoma panhandle. Golden plains of wheat under a deep blue vault filled with puffy white cotton balls. It was insanely beautiful and immensely up lifting for all of us. We were filled with joy and excitement for the chase.
We were watching the visible satellite and the Kansas target was holding off, still sitting under clear blue skies, while developing storms and an agitated cumulus field arced across eastern Colorado. Lapse rates were very steep, exceeding 9C in the low levels, under great shear profiles. I decided to divert from our original Kansas target and make a play on the Colorado activity given our timing, position and how the weather was unfolding. North of Campo, the cumulus started to become much more robust. We briefly considered stopping to shoot the convection, but storms were maturing to our northwest and we needed to hustle to make a play on them.

RFD Clear Slot
4 miles W of Lamar, CO
3:41 PM
A couple cells were developing rapidly right under the surface low, cruising north northeast. We caught up with the southeast cell in the town of Lamar. The storm was low topped, sporting no anvil in the relatively cool and modestly unstable air mass. But CAPE profiles were short and fat thanks to the steep lapse rates and cold air aloft. Convection was rock solid, the bases dark and textured against a blue and cumulus studded backdrop. Brindley remarked that it would be the dream to get a tornado in these skies. Our dreams were about to come true.

We followed 287 north out of Lamar, driving underneath the base of our yet unwarned storm. There was a distinct horseshoe shaped cut in the base, however. It was the rear flanking downdraft clear slot. We had a mini supercell.
We continued north until we were kissing the forward flank of the supercell. Inflow bands streamed rapidly into the base.

Red Operator
13 miles SSE of Eads, CO
4:05 PM
Payton Ware, manning the turret with a Red and ready for action:

Temperatures were only in the low 50’s and dew point temperatures in the 40’s at our location, and with a 20-30 mph east wind, we realized we needed coats as soon as we stepped out of Doghouse. The temps and moisture would normally be insufficient to support tornadoes and surface based supercells, but we were above 4,000 feet elevation and under a stacked low with extremely cold air pooling above us. The normal guidelines did not apply as a result. Relatively warm and moist air wrapped around and under the low resulting in very steep low and midlevel lapse rates with robust low level instability. We were chasing the cold core side of the system, which often features north moving mini-supercells in seemingly marginal conditions, but which can also feature very photogenic tornadoes.
Phil and Doghouse silhouetted beneath the dark horseshoe shaped base just to our west:
The RFD clear slot moving over highway 287 just to our north:

The colors and lighting shifted dramatically as the storm passed us. We were cast in shadow one moment and then blazingly bright light the next.
Soon we were under sunny blue skies again, the storm marching off to the northeast. We piled back into Doghouse and were moving north again. I wanted to play as tight as we could on the storm, and drove us into the edge of the forward flank getting a blast of rain and small hail before stopping again to let the core move off of us.

Funnel Cloud
5 miles SE of Eads, CO
4:24 PM
The rain and hail gave way to piercing sunlight. A brilliant rainbow appeared low on the eastern horizon. Phil and I got out to setup tripods and shoot the storm again. The RFD clear slot was now off to our immediate east, front lit as the storm moved north northeast. A pointy little nub was hanging from the top of the horseshoe base. I stared at it, not immediately comprehending what I was looking at. It persisted. The motion, from what I could see over the blazing front lit contrast, was rapid. “Is that a funnel cloud?” I called out to Brindley who was still sitting in the cab working both her DSLR and my camcorder. “Looks like a funnel cloud to me!”

Tornado #1
5 miles SE of Eads, CO
4:25 PM
A tiny stick of condensation flicked up from the ground, a tornado. It was probably mere feet in diameter. I wasn’t expecting it, even though I really should have. Our storm was a robust supercell, moving into a favorable environment of very steep lapse rates and effective storm relative helicity ramping up from 200 to over 300 nearing the warm front. Yet the storm wasn’t warned and we were surrounded by blue skies, so I was surprised anyway. I loaded Spotter Network to report the developing tornado, but I had no internet access on that remote stretch of highway between Eads and Lamar.
Brindley and I stepped out of Doghouse to take in the spectacle that was developing in front of us. A perfectly shaded tube, truncated just above the rainbow formed. I’ve seen dozens of tornadoes, but there are still moments on the chase when my breath gets taken away and my heart races. This was one of those moments. The whole view of the sky was amazing and Brindley put on her wide lens to capture it: blue skies above brilliant white convection, the front lit tornado in front of a postcard Colorado cloudscape, and the rainbow just made the scene magical. If you follow the funnel up into the storm, you can also make out the parent updraft tube, tilted nearly horizontal in the strongly sheared environment.

Rainbow Tornado
5 miles SE of Eads, CO
4:27 PM
All Brindley and I could do was exclaim in wonder while Phil and Payton silently worked their Red cameras behind us. Penalized by a late start and delays, we miraculously still managed to arrive underneath the storm within minutes of it putting on this amazing display.
A screen grab from my video camera shows the structure of the funnel, sheathed in layers, as it built toward the ground:
The condensation funnel reached down to kiss the ground during this epic wide angle shot capturing half of the sky. A second rainbow was faintly visible above and right of the main rainbow, and the long snaky updraft tube above the tornado was much more visible as well. This was the dream shot: a gorgeous tornado, beautiful skies, and a double rainbow over the empty plains of eastern Colorado.

White Tornado
5 miles SE of Eads, CO
4:29 PM
The white tornado against blue clouds looked more like a cold, icy finger in the chilly air.
The funnel tapered and tightened up, signaling that it was beginning to rope out.
The layers inside twisted and turned dramatically even though the tornado would soon be dissipating.
The tornado wasn’t done putting on a show, however. As it roped out and stretched thin, its rotational speed increased. It pulled up a white flame of condensation funnel off the ground and kicked up a dusty brown debris cloud.

Rope Out
5 miles SE of Eads, CO
4:30 PM
The storm was moving away from us, about to cross highway 96. Before the spout like tornado resembling an icicle had completely roped out we were back in Doghouse and rolling to keep up. The tornado had been an incredible display of atmospheric beauty, but the storm was just getting warmed up. We wanted to be there for the next tornado, and not left behind as the storm moved on. Spirits were high in Doghouse. We were like giddy children on Christmas morning, shouting in exclamation.

Tornado #2 and #3
10 miles WNW of Sheridan Lake, CO
5:00 PM
The storm cleared highway 96 and pushed off to the north leaving us back in sunny skies as we turned east onto 96. We had a couple options to go north. There were a few unpaved ranch roads that would lead directly under the base, but they looked like they eventually dead ended and road conditions would be questionable as the storm had rained on them. Highway 385 was a major, paved north route, but it was a dozen miles east of the storm, a little too far for us to get good shots and we’d be well behind by the time we got to it. There was a county road north of the tiny town of Brandon, however. It would be unpaved, but an improved road that went through all the way to highway 40 according to my map. By the time we turned north on the dusty road, the storm was cycling again. A stocky funnel was descending beneath the new mesocyclone. We watched tornado #2 develop as we raced down the bumpy dirt road. A snaky little rope also formed beside the larger tornado, either an anticyclonic or satellite tornado. We didn’t have a great view of it as we were playing catch up, but other chasers’ video showed there were two concurrent tornadoes in progress.
We had a cyclical supercell that was putting down a string of tornadoes. The sun was still out at our location and the glare was killing our contrast. I barreled Doghouse down the dirt road trying to catch up to the storm’s shadow for a better view. Pushing what could be considered a reasonably safe speed for the road, I had to take it down a notch. Payton was getting knocked around in the bed of the truck, moving parts in the turret swinging and threatening to hit him. Meanwhile, we had made a few calls to TIV over the radio, but got no reply. We feared that they had wound up on another storm and were missing the show, which would have been even more devastating after Doghouse’s intercept just two days earlier. They were out there on the same tornadoes, however, working a different set of roads just out of earshot. We traveled for miles and several minutes watching a large cone tornado until we had our ideal viewing location.

Backlit Cone
12 miles NW of Sheridan Lake, CO
5:03 PM
We were finally well into the storm’s shadow so I pulled Doghouse off to the side of the wide dirt road. Our view was spectacular: a high contrast blue cone tornado backlit in the crystal clear Colorado air.
We had a view of the entire storm, a low topped supercell in blue skies with a large dark cone underneath. The cold Colorado air was devoid of haze and cloud debris that would normally prevent such a view.
The condensation funnel kissed the ground as a spray of debris cloud spun underneath. The tornadoes were tracking over completely empty land. This was a storm chaser’s dream come true: a string of highly photogenic tornadoes, impacting nothing but dirt. We could sit back and watch the display with wonder and awe knowing we didn’t have to worry about people caught in the path.
A cold east wind whipped at our backs. We had to wear coats while shooting or we would have been freezing, not something we are accustomed to doing on tornado chases that usually feature warm, muggy air.
Epic pano of Doghouse, chasers, and the storm:
A storm chaser is captured in a state of nirvana when Brindley looks back at me:

Whip Tail Tornado
12 miles NW of Sheridan Lake, CO
5:08 PM
We lost our contrast as the tornado moved north in front of the precipitation core and we were rolling north once more. The condensation funnel retreated leaving a blocking lowering under the base, but soon descended again as a whip tail. We didn't count this as a new tornado as it looked like the parent tornado cyclone was still in the same cycle. Tornado counts varied widely among chasers on this storm depending on how each funnel was considered, but we would count five distinct circulations as several funnels appeared to be continuations of the same tornado.

Shaggy Funnel
11 miles SSW of Cheyenne Wells, CO
5:13 PM
We pushed several miles north until we had our favorable lighting again. Meanwhile the block lowering of the tornado cyclone was withering away leaving a rather shaggy looking funnel tightening up in its core.
The rotational velocity on this feature was a bit low for tornado standards, but it held a decent funnel shape for a while.
The scuddy funnel starting to fall apart:
Before the feature dissipatedA horizontal string of condensation appeared briefly extending off the withering funnel, perhaps a horizontal vortex arch connecting circulations in the storm’s base.
My aerial chase partner and pilot buddy, Caleb Elliott, and his wife, LaShawnda, caught up with us and stopped to say hi. It’s not very often that we get time to just hang out on the side of the road visiting during a cyclical tornado machine.
Brindley just sat on the side of the road watching, taking it all in and enjoying the moment. The core essence of why we chase: to see something amazing, beautiful, and rare.
A well-formed funnel rapidly developed under the base, not the shaggy, scuddy kind we had just seen. It quickly condensed down to the ground as a slender rope tornado. This tornado was on the bottom or southern end of the horseshoe updraft base, a position indicating that it was likely anticyclonic, spinning in the opposite direction of most tornadoes.
The beautiful blue tornado was backlit by golden sunbeams as it moved across an endless green plain. We had pretty much died and gone to chaser heaven at this point.
The funnel was wavy like a ribbon before it roped out. We were pushing north once more before it was completely done. The storm still had more to offer!
A few miles south of highway 40, the storm cycled again presenting a menacing tornado cyclone. A carousel of claw like fingers spun rapidly. The structure was dramatic and we anticipated our largest tornado yet. A cone funnel rapidly condensed to the ground before retreating again.

Cone Tornado
4 miles WSW of Cheyenne Wells, CO
5:36 PM
A stouter cone quickly reappeared, likely the same tornado between intermittent stages of condensation. We were in a great position to shoot the tornado in progress, but we wanted to make the most of this one. The storm was quickly approaching highway 40, and this was our chance to get dramatically close and cherry pick our position for the most epic IMAX quality film. We kept going and turned east on to 40 for the intercept while finally starting to encounter large clumps of chasers on the sides of the road.

Crossing the Whip Tail
6 miles WSW of Cheyenne Wells, CO
5:39 PM
The cone retreated but the menacing parent tornado cyclone persisted. We gunned it west heading right for the black mass as a few chasers ahead of us pulled off the road and we passed a couple more. I wanted to get just behind and north of the tornado so we’d have a perfectly lit funnel that we could get fairly close to in relative safety without worrying about being in its path. However, the position meant we would have to cross the tornado’s path. The maneuver is quite risky, especially if you don’t have your timing down. Brindley and I wanted to be damn sure about our timing. It was a long, tense, anxious moment in the front of Doghouse as we carefully gauged our westward progression against the tornado’s north northeast progression. We would make it, but there wasn’t any time to fuss. We sped west down highway 40. A whip tail funnel condensed briefly, licking the ground.
The twisting updraft tube above the tornado arched toward and far overhead of us. We passed underneath of it and were soon across the tornado’s path and on its back side. The near tornado environment is chaotic and we encountered intense inflow winds that were feeding the vortex beneath the boiling rear flanking downdraft clear slot. Small bits of brush and tumbleweeds battered the Doghouse as they flew across the road.
Clear of the tornado and its inflow jets, we swung Doghouse around to face the circulation and jumped out to shoot. The tornado had dissipated but the view was still literally awesome. A blue green whirlpool of doom circled overhead, the occluded circulation and RFD clear slot. We were peering directly into the storm’s heart. The region turned like a merry go around and the interior roiled. This would have been our epic IMAX shot, a tornado at dramatically close range beneath an evil looking storm with exquisite color and contrast. The storm had run out of steam, however. Motion on the back rim of the whirlpool was rapid, but the inflow side was going slack. The storm managed to squeak out one last scuddy white funnel.

Death by Shelf Cloud
9 miles WSW of Cheyenne Wells, CO
5:43 PM
A dramatic shelf cloud came screaming in from the north, driving a wedge between the tornado machine’s updraft base and its warm moist inflow, and cutting the cyclone off from its fuel source with cold, stable outflow. Just like that, the storm was dead after an amazing run with tornado after tornado. We knew it was pretty much over, but the storm was our only nearby play so we went after it anyway. We rolled Doghouse north onto the unpaved road grid. A few miles down the road we realized we had made a mistake. The road was gradually degrading, the major county compacted dirt giving way to minimum maintance sand and mud. There was a cross road coming up that would connect us to 385, only a few miles to the east. We should have taken the highway in the first place, but we were stubbornly trying to play the storm super tight and were a little too gung ho after our string of catches. Rather than dig ourselves into a deeper hole, I decided that we better turn around. The narrow road forced us to execute a multipoint turn, with no other good places to turn around. Chaser traffic was piling up behind us, but we weren’t going to risk getting stuck for their sake and nobody was missing a show anyway. Wheels spinning a little, we started to claw our way back south toward highway 40’s pavement. An all wheel drive crossover ahead of us was already stuck, wheels spinning away on the slick road. We wanted to stop and help, but we were doing everything we could just to stay on the road and keep ourselves from getting stuck. We’d be the ones in need of help a short time later, anyway.

Disaster Strikes
14 miles S of Burlington, CO
7:07 PM
Back on pavement, we cruised up to Cheyenne Wells and 385 north. We caught a garbled TIV and Justin Walker on the radio. They were northbound heading for interstate 70 east, abandoning the storm for other storms moving through western Kansas, and wanted us to catch up with them. After missing our turn a couple times in the dusty little town, we were gunning it north to go after them passing a couple other chasers that were also making for Kansas. We didn’t make it far. A disturbing noise started coming from Doghouse’s left and rear, and it was rapidly getting worse. I pulled us off the highway at the next ranch road. The left rear tire was destroyed, shredded and coming off the wheel.
We looked around to see what we had to work with: a spare tire, but only a tiny jack that looked like it would sink into the unpaved road. The weather was deteriorating with rain, fading light, and falling temperatures as the cold front approached. We decided against toiling in vain with the tire ourselves. After a brief discussion with TIV on the phone, we were able to get ahold of an auto shop with a tow truck that was still open in Burlington, CO a few miles to our north. What a life saver that turned out to be. The friendly mechanic showed up a few minutes later with a large truck and flatbed trailer, and pulled Doghouse onto the bed.

Doghouse Rescued

7:36 PM
The mechanic guessed that the tire’s sidewall had been damaged somehow and failed catastrophically. Perhaps we had brushed something on one of the unpaved roads causing a later failure, we weren’t sure. We were a little bummed that we were marooned in the middle of nowhere, away from TIV, and the rest of our chase was shut down. What’s a grand adventure without a little struggle and mishap though? The four of us had to squeeze in with the mechanic in the tow’s cab, and it was a cozy ride up to Burlington.

Back at the shop, our mechanic rolled Doghouse off the truck and had our spare installed in no time. We had a phone meeting with the Casey’s, explaining our plight and the day, while the mechanic tested our ride for us. We were good to go. Lodging was secured for us and there was even a Denny’s still open for us to grab dinner. We were safe and sound after an incredible chase day with a crazy ending.


May 9 was not only our best chase of the season, but one of the most photogenic tornado chases of my career. I had seen more and larger tornadoes on single chases, but not such a string of exquisitely lit, colored, and contrasted funnels. The low dews of the cold core setup and high elevation made for haze free, crystal clear viewing conditions. The day was a huge success for our mission. We got great footage on both Red cameras of a variety of different tornadoes. TIV also had a great day, shooting the same tornadoes from separate angles, which will provide a great mix of shots. TIV and many other chasers went on to catch several more tornadoes after dark in Kansas. Our tire failure had cost us that show, but we didn’t care as the Colorado show was just so much more spectacular and enjoyable. The event featured an outbreak of tornadoes across eastern Colorado and western Kansas. The deepening surface low, ejecting shortwave trough, and cold core conditions provided steep lapse rates, robust low level instability, and large amounts of directional shear necessary for a tornado outbreak. Fortunately, all of the tornadoes we documented tracked over mostly empty terrain and as a result were all rated EF-0. It was a dream chase: photogenic tornadoes that only storm chasers and prairie dogs are around to witness.

Lessons Learned

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