Production Log #5: Attack of the Tornado Helix

Around 2 o’clock in the afternoon on May 17th, Reed was still sleeping — he hadn’t rested the previous night because various early-morning news shows had requested live interviews (very common during storm season). Dick McGowan, Reed’s driver, had taken him to these interviews and was totally exhausted.

Conditions were quickly looking better for tornadoes in the afternoon, even though the Storm Prediction Center had only issued a 2% risk (usually crummy). Mike Scantlin and Sean Schofer rounded up the troops, trying to get everyone out of bed. Dick decided the tornado risk was too low — better to rest up for the following day, May 18th.

While Reed was dragging himself out of bed, our top Kickstarter backers — Ray Bohac and Bill Beach — arrived at the house. Ray and Bill had won the top reward: a week of chasing in Dominator 1, driven by its engineer and builder, Kevin Barton. Very cool. I was excited to be shooter-producer with them in the original Dom.

As an emergency replacement for Dick, a young meteorology student named Connor McCrorey had just left his job at Pizza Hut to drive Dom 2. Whiteneck and Bagby arrived, and set up the GoPro cameras in their vehicles (Dom 2 and Dom 3, respectively). Terry Rosema armed himself with his video and still cameras. This was our first all-out production day. Hopefully we could get our first undisputed tornado.

It was fun riding down to Texas with Ray, Bill, and Kevin. It’s a proven rule: people who are passionate about weather instantly get along with each other. Riding in that car felt like a road trip with old buddies. Ray and Bill were dreaming of seeing their first tornado on their first day. Sometimes, dreams come true.

In Young County, Texas, we stopped under a supercell with a beautiful rain-free base — the sun was low enough to shine below the base (amazing). A tornado slowly touched down a few miles away.

Whiteneck was in full shooter-producer mode, covering Reed’s educational beats and failed quadcopter launches. Bagby and I were covering the tornado and all other chasers. Terry and Mike Scantlin focused on the tornado itself. Everyone knew his job, and we were seamlessly operating as production “machine.”

After watching a “baseball bat” funnel rotate directly over our heads we chased the intensifying tornado for an intercept. This skinny tornado, now into its final “rope” stage, morphed into a dance of helical suction vortices. Even Reed had never seen anything like it. It would become the inspiration for the name of Episode 3, “Helix.”

Unfortunately, this tornado ripped through some houses — we quickly abandoned the chase to help. I will confess, though I’d chased for 13 years, I’d never seen up-close, immediate tornado damage. Thankfully everyone was okay, but the sudden damage this tornado caused was sobering and removed any excitement we’d felt minutes ago.

As the day wound down, we shooters felt like we’d passed a big, mid-term exam. Whiteneck, confident smile on his face, showed off his footage of Reed running up to the camera with the tornado whipping behind him. Bagby, Scantlin, Terry and I were similarly pleased with the footage we shot. Maybe this signaled a major turnaround in the tornado season.

Mike Scantlin and Dick McGowan got into some argument over the phone that night. I don’t even know what happened: was Dick sore that he missed out on seeing this tornado? Was Mike gloating a little too hard? Regardless, Dick “quit” the team and went rogue for May 18th.

I’ll briefly touch on May 18th: riding high from the previous day, we bucked the prevailing wisdom and chased in Oklahoma instead of Kansas. It turned out to be a comically bad bust for us. Dick, however, went to Kansas and saw the best tornado of his life. You can see the whole story in Episode 4, “Payback.”

However, it was difficult to get too depressed about missing Dick’s tornado — the models were indicating massive tornado potential for May 19th and 20th. And Jim Cantore was coming back. The season was alive and kicking.

To be continued next time!

Ken Cole
Executive Producer, Tornado Chasers

2013 Season
2013 Bonus Content
2012 Season

Tornado Chasers


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One comment on “Production Log #5: Attack of the Tornado Helix
  1. Mike Bowser says:

    Just a quick question about why TVN started to collect data sets using the CLOVR device or “verticle radar.” I’m kind of a weather geek, so whenever there’s a chance for tornadoes, I always read the Storm Prediction Center’s convective outlook synopsis, and today, 6-16-14 was the first time that I had looked into the definition of a Hodograph and was wondering, did Reed get the idea to start taking measurements of vertical wind speeds and direction due to the early uses of hodograph plotting techniques or was this simply just another absolutely brilliant off the cuff idea that he came to on his own to better understand the verticle winds inside of a supercell?

    If this is sounding sarcastic, it’s NOT meant to be at all! I would never have paid any attention to Cape values if it wasn’t for Reed mentioning them on his forecasts that he used to write about on the old site when practically no other meteorologists were even mentioning them, and now NOAA constantly uses Cape values when describing possible severe weather outbreaks, and I had never heard the hodograph term until today. It just seems to me that Reed and his team are truly finding new and innovative ways to get data of these other weather phenomena first and foremost before even NOAA really starts to use the vernacular!

    If it’s at all possible for Reed to answer this question for me, again, based solely on my own personal curiosity, I would greatly appreciate it! I keep thinking that the verticle radar data might just be the modern breakthrough that the scientific aspect of storm observation needs to find out why some storms drop tornadoes… If I could get a response at his earliest convenience, hopefully today if it’s at all possible, again, I would greatly appreciate it.


    Mike Bowser
    SkyWarn Storm Spotter
    Carver County, Minnesota

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