Aerial storm chasing in a Cessna 172
Targeted dryline/warm front triple point for afternoon initiation of tornadic supercells in north central KS. Departed KOJC by early afternoon landing at KHUT Hutchinson to avoid IFR to the north and await initiation. Relocated to KHYS Hays and waited for supercell to mature nearby. Supercell went tornado warned, took off, flew box pattern in front of storm, encountering airsickness inducing turbulence. Noted wall cloud and rotating lowerings, but no tornado. Landed at KRSL Russel to fuel and wait for target storm to produce. Hit by gust front while on ground, but was able to take off before core of storm hit. Squall line went up on the gust front to the south, cutting us from tornado producing supercell near Rozel. Aborted chase and headed back to KOJC arriving after dark.
Crew and Equipment
Chasers: Caleb Elliott – Pilot. Skip Talbot – Forecaster.
Equipment: Canon 60D, Canon t2i, Canon T3i, Tamron 10-22mm, Canon EFS 10-22, Canon EF 50mm, Sony HDR-xr500v, Panasonic HMC150, and Midland XTC300.
Caleb’s Video edit
Skip’s Video edit
Caleb Elliott, Phil Bates, and I attempted chasing supercells in an airplane last year, with the goal of documenting a tornado from the air. We were able to document tornado warned supercells on all three of our aerial chase attempts, but the tornado shot eluded us. Our initial experiments with aerial chasing seemed plausible, however, and safe enough that we decided we could continue to pursue this as a viable way to chase tornadoes, as long as the right precautions are taken. While the idea seems crazy to both pilots and ground based storm chasers, few people happen to be both. Caleb and I are both pilots, with Caleb an IFR rated flight instructor with lots of time on different types, in addition to us both being experienced chasers. We have the right mix of experience and backgrounds needed to safely attempt aerial chasing.
After missing last year’s Great Bend, KS tornadoes on an aerial chase, Caleb and I were determined to get out there and give it another shot. By mid-May things were shaping up in the central plains for an active round of severe weather. Brindley, my usual chase partner, couldn’t go with me, and with the targets lining up across central KS, Caleb was open to us renting a plane on our own and making another couple attempts at an aerial chase. The 18th looked like our first real shot, and initially I thought of it more as the “day before the day type setup” as the 19th looked like a more significant event. The setup seemed ideal for an aerial chase: discrete and isolated dryline storms were forecast to initiate off a surface low and dryline in west central Kansas, tracking northeast toward a warm front, where they would hopefully produce tornadoes for us to film. Some of the severe parameters looked a little more appealing to me on the northern end of the setup. The directional shear and openings in the cap were more favorable along the I-70 corridor in northern KS near the warm front. Hays looked like a good airport to fly to and await storm initiation, and that became our initial target with Salina as a backup in case we needed more room between us and the initiating boundaries.
I left from Springfield the night before the chase, planning on camping in the van on the side of the road. I took 36 across northern Missouri and stopped just past Cameron on a rural road. It was probably after 1am by that time and took me awhile to fall asleep, as I was wound up about the next day’s aerial chase. I had only been asleep a short while when Jenny woke me at 2:30 with a call, and after falling asleep again, was up not long after dawn. The poor quality sleep would turn out to be disastrous for this chase, the fatigue making me much more susceptible to motion sickness.
I was excited and ready to go, however, and arrived at Johnson County Executive, KOJC, before Caleb by late morning. I almost stopped at Walgreen’s to pick up some Dramamine (just in case), but foolishly decided against it figuring I’d be fine with the ginger pills I had. I had the folks in the rental office pull the aircraft out and top it off with fuel for us while Caleb was heading down.
Caleb arrived and we started to unload our stuff from our cars to take into the plane. A passing flight instructor spotted us with our gear and said, “Oh, you’re the crazy guys that fly into thunderstorms?” Caleb was not amused.
Our aircraft for this chase was a Cessna 172 with a Garmin G1000 glass cockpit, which provided us satellite radar data as a backup to our laptop with cellular data. The 172 is a smaller plane than the 182 we had last year, but we figured with two people instead of three, we didn’t need the extra room and horsepower. We loaded up the plane, not taking the time to set much up in the way of cameras as the plan was to get to our target airport and setup for an intercept there. I threw the GPS up on the dash, held the laptop in my lap, popped a couple ginger pills instead of just one like I usually do, and then we were off. We took off under sunny skies heading west.
Hays was overcast with low ceilings because of the warm front so we decided to divert to Hutchinson for our first stop, which was clear and sunny. The afternoon sun heated the ground up, creating thermals and the instability needed for afternoon thunderstorms, but also the first bumps of turbulence. My stomach started to become a little unsettled on the flight out to Hutchinson, but it wasn’t bad and I figured I’d be fine once I got out of the plane, walked around, and got some air.
We landed and fueled up in Hutchinson, still under sunny skies but surface winds were pretty gusty making it not an ideal day for a joy ride flight. We had stopped at this airport last year on May 25 and the office had some free cookies. I was hoping for the same this time, to have something to put into my churning stomach, but alas no cookies. I got some water and felt much better, however. After a doing a quick data check while the plane was being fueled, we could see that storms were imminent or starting to initiate just southwest of our initial Hays target. We decided to fly up to and land at the airport in Hays and wait for the storm to mature, instead of wasting gas flying around like we did last year.
Still sunny yet gusty, we took off from Hutchinson heading northwest, Caleb at the controls in the left seat, and me in the right seat with the laptop on my lap. There was little room in the plane to setup monopods between the seats or suction mounts like we had wanted. Caleb and I were almost shoulder to shoulder in the smaller 172 and we decided that we were just going to handhold our cameras for this chase. The laptop wound up getting in the way too. Sitting in the front seat, instead of the back seat like I did last year, I couldn’t easily reach the controls if I needed to with the cumbersome laptop in the way. I needed to plug my USB datacard into the left port, and Caleb would bump it with his right arm when he moved back a bit, which would cause our data to momentarily go out. It was not a good setup. I briefly tried putting the laptop on the back seat and using it over my shoulder, but it was too difficult and awkward to see it from that angle, and turning around in the bobbing plane only made my belly churn more.
We flew over a feed lot a couple thousand feet above the ground. At that altitude, the smell of hundreds of animals living in close proximity wasn’t any better than it is driving past in the car. We opened the windows to get some air in the plane as it was also becoming a very hot afternoon. The plane continued to bounce in the sunny afternoon thermals, and the heat and smells were not helping my queasy stomach. On the second leg of the flight I felt quite a bit worse than on the first, and was belching ginger. I had taken too much and it was having a negative effect on my stomach rather than a positive one like it should have. Still, I figured I could recover again when we landed in Hays, and then we would be in chase mode and I’d forget about being sick.
On the way to Hays, we passed by our developing storms, a collection of several updrafts that hadn’t yet consolidated. Visibility was extremely poor and we had no view of any structure, just a dark grey sky to the west. We decided against getting any closer for a better view and continued on to Hays to wait for the storm to mature. We landed without issue. The anvil of the developing storm was already stretching overhead with some mammatus.
I shot a few pictures while Caleb checked the oil and got us some fuel.
We sat in the plane ready to go, but waiting until a tornado seemed imminent. The storm took on a nice pendent shaped, developed a hook echo, and was tornado warned. I wanted to immediately tear down the runway and get back on the storm, but Caleb wanted to wait just a bit longer to make sure the storm was ready. Just a few miles to our southwest we’d have a view of the base almost immediately after taking off. We both decided to go for it, Caleb did an engine run up, and we were rolling down the runway.
My stomach did not recover nearly as much as it did after our first stop, and the bumpy air hit me hard as soon as we took off, making me more and more sick. We gained some altitude and the storm came into view… sort of. The visibility was somewhere between three and five miles due to the moisture rich boundary layer airmass. While this is not a problem on the ground, in the air where you are moving at faster speeds and looking at things farther away, that kind of visibility is like driving down the highway on a really foggy day. You can see just ahead of where you are going, but hope there is nothing out of ahead you in the road that you might crash into.
We flew a few circles in front of the storm, but only a hazy, low contrast base with rain core behind it could be seen. I tried taking a few pictures with the DSLR and camcorder, but the low visibility and bouncing aircraft made it less than ideal for handheld shots. Despite chasing a now tornado warned storm in an airplane, my stomach was getting worse. I was looking right at a mean core and supercell but it did nothing to take my mind off of being green. Caleb even decided to have me fly the plane, in hopes that engaging my mind on the task would calm my stomach. We did a positive exchange of the controls: “You have the controls,” “I have the controls,” which ensures that somebody is flying the plane (instead of nobody like if we both decided to start taking pictures for example). Caleb had me fly a fixed heading and altitude. I basically had to just keep the airplane pointed in the same direction. It gave me lots of time to think about being sick, and so it didn’t help my case at all and Caleb took the controls back once he got a few shots with his video camera.
Visibility improves and a much more well defined rain free base comes into view finally.
A few more circles around the storm, and we had a base in view now with a well-defined rear flanking downdraft. Things were looking promising storm wise, but my condition only worsened. A pointy rotating lowering descended between the rear and forward flanking precipitation cores. Not well defined enough to be called a funnel, and too small for a wall cloud, I was able to snag a shot of it before I had to put the camera down. It soon became apparent that I was actually going to hurl. I had the window open for shooting, and without any airsickness bags immediately available, I decided to stick my head out the window when I first started to gag. The airstream was rushing past the plane at 130 mph, and sticking my face into it felt like I had been hit by a fire hose. It was extremely uncomfortable. I gagged, just a little, and then spit out of the plane. With my head back inside, I drank some water to recover. I felt better immediately and was ready to really get into the aerial chase.
The visibility at our position dropped, but something appeared to be protruding from the base of the storm. Could it be a tornado? As we approached, however, we could see that it was just scud underneath a ragged wall cloud emerging from the pea soup haze.
The sensation of relief and a quieted stomach did not last long, however. Within a couple minutes I was even greener than before. Our storm had a lot of interesting looking scud, but did not look promising tornado wise. I was really sick now. I stuck my head out the window. The wind hit me again with a ferocious blast. It was dark outside and incredibly loud. It felt like I was sticking my head into some sort of hell. I let loose, this time not just a little gag. I heaved violently about a half dozen times. The wind blew vomit down the side of the plane, back into my face, on my shirt, and even inside the plane. I fought the wind for seemingly an eternity until I was done heaving. Back inside the plane, I did not feel better at all. Chunks were stuck in my nose and burned terribly. The taste of vomit was still on my mouth, and my shirt was wet with it. Drinking water helped a little, but not much, and the feeling of being nauseated persisted. Cramped in the loud, stuffy little plane, I could do little but sit there in agony, covered in sweat and vomit, unable to breathe through my nose. I apologized to Caleb for losing it in the plane, but he was a real trooper, continuing to fly us on like it was nothing, and focused on the chase.
I was able to get another shot or two of the base as it moved over Hays, KS. The lights on the ground turned on as the storm blanketed the town in darkness. More and more scud kicked up under the base and it appeared that the storm was going outflow dominant and becoming less organized. Meanwhile, another cell to the south was just starting to get its act together, becoming larger and taking on supercellular characteristics. It seemed like most of the chasers on the ground had been holding out for this cell, closer to their original target, and some on the northern cell were starting to bail for it. It would need time to mature, and I wasn’t in much of a condition to chase, so we decided to make for Russell, KS, just a few miles to the east, land, get fuel, and then figure out our next plan of attack.
We touched down at a deserted Russell airport. I staggered out of the plane and into the office bathroom, blew my nose, and then threw up again. I was able wash my face in the sink though and clean myself up a bit. I came out of the office back onto the airport ramp, looked up and nearly stopped in my tracks. The supercell had followed us to Russell and while I was in the bathroom, it had nearly caught up with us. The updraft tower and gust front loomed just to the west in plain view. I jogged over to the plane to help Caleb as he finished fueling. The gust front of the storm hit with a blast of howling winds and a few drops of rain. Caleb jumped in to turn the plane away from the wind so it wouldn’t blow away, and I scrambled to get the fuel hose retracted. I fumbled with that for too long, while Caleb did the pre-take off checklist. After the gust front hit, the winds went slack again, but the rear flanking core containing more wind, rain, and hail still loomed to the west. Climbing into the plane, we decided we could take off and escape underneath the gust front clouds before the supercell hit.
Caleb hurried through the takeoff checklist and we were rolling down the runway. It was the riskiest maneuver we had yet attempted on an aerial chase, and the most nervous I had been on one of our endeavors. We could immediately wind up in severe turbulence on liftoff, hit a downdraft and come right back into the ground, or the storm could catch us with a blast of severe hail and zero visibility rain. The skies were clear directly overhead and there was a surreal calm, so we were pretty sure we could make it. The plane lifted off the runway and immediately bucked in the turbulent air near the ground in the wake of the gust front. Caleb was able to keep us stable and climbing, however, and within a minute or so we were above the wake and flying through smoother air. We turned east and flew underneath the gust front clouds expecting severe turbulence. At an altitude of a couple thousand feet above the ground, however, the air was surprisingly smooth underneath the clouds. Most of the gust turbulence must exist close to the ground.
The southern storm was now tornado warned and would soon be producing a photogenic tornado near Rozel, KS. The gust front we flew through was the start of a developing squall line, however, and a line of cells erupted, building southward like a zipper, separating us from the supercell we chased and the one to the south. With severe turbulence in the updraft towers and blinding precipitation and downdrafts underneath, there was no way we could fly through the squall and it effectively walled us off from intercepting the Rozel supercell. At that point, I called for an abort to the chase. We continued flying east and started to making for home base back in Olathe, KS.
The plane continued to bounce the whole way on the two hour flight home. I didn’t spew this time, but I was severely nauseated. It was an agonizingly long flight. I never wanted to be in a small plane again, and I questioned why I had bothered getting my pilot’s certificate. It was a miracle when we were finally on the ground. I rolled out of the plane and laid flat on the ground. I could barely move except to spit in the grass, and it took me a good ten minutes of lying there before I could start to get my stuff out of the plane. I thanked Caleb for putting up with me again and we split and went our own ways. I was in no mood to go anywhere or see anyone, so I decided to just sleep in the van right there in the airport parking lot. I only had the stomach for a little water, and then I passed out for a good ten hours.
Our fourth aerial chase was a bust in the sense that we missed the photogenic Rozel tornado, as a tornado intercept was one of our primary goals. It was a success in that we had again successfully chased a supercell from the air and lived to tell about it, however. Personally, it was one of the worst days of my life. Getting airsick for that extended amount of time was true agony. At the height of it, I didn’t care at all if we were missing a tornado. I just wanted to get out of there, I was so completely miserable. We learned a lot of valuable lessons about aerial chasing with just two people and will be making extensive changes to our setup and procedures when and if we attempt the next one. I’m still debating whether or not I want to attempt another one after this horrific day. As far as getting airsick is concerned, it’s something I’ve struggled with over the year,s but this is the worst it has ever been. A combination of poor sleep the night before, the ginger pills, and then not eating right all aggrevated it. I’ll be taking precautions on all of those things for future flights.
- Always take Dramamine before an aerial chase
- Bring airsickness bags
- Use a tablet instead of a laptop for aerial chasing
- Stabilized camera mounts are necessary for documenting from the air
All images are ©Caleb Elliott, Wx-Pilot.com, and Skip Talbot 2012-2013.