Chasing supercells in airplanes – Storm Chasing May 2012
For a long time I have been planning on aerial storm chasing. Back in January I contacted Skip Talbot about the idea and he was open to the idea of forecasting the severe weather while I flew the aircraft. Skip then introduced me to Phil Bates of Artbeats.com who needed some stock footage of cityscapes and clouds, but also enjoyed chasing storms. I ran into Skip on the April 14th Tornado outbreak in Kansas and by the end of that week, the plans were set in motion to do an aerial storm chase at the middle or end of May. I chose to use a 2010 Cessna 182T for usable load and avionics to maximize equipment carrying and situational awareness.
An aircraft similar to what we use. Cessna 182T
Once the aircraft was reserved for our use, it was then up to the weather to do its thing. At first, we weren’t even certain that we would be doing an aerial chase, due to the huge high pressure ridge that prevented severe weather for most of May. However, as the time came closer, the weather was starting to look more promising. We departed our first day from the Olathe, KS airport and headed towards Bismarck, ND, stopping for fuel in Yankton, SD along the way.
After fueling in KBIS, we waited for storms to initiate in NW North Dakota. We got our clearance and off we went.
The air chasers.
Skip made himself pretty cozy in the back seat of the aircraft. Nestled amid heaps of wires and cameras, he managed to keep a mobile broadband connection for radar data almost continuously.
Getting our clearance.
Skip in his forecasting office
The first aerial storm chase of 2012 was now officially underway. Storms exploded in NW North Dakota near the Canadian border and we were among those storms 20mins after leaving KBIS. We saw a brief tornado, a very nice wall cloud, and a great storm structure, before turning tail and heading back to Minot, ND to spend the night.
Tornado warned with a wall cloud from the air
The next day, May 23rd, we left KMOT and turned our sites to the potential of a tail-end charlie along the cold front, which would be just west of Omaha by that evening. We stopped for fuel in Sioux Falls, SD for our first fueling. Checked the weather and proceeded as planned.
Our next stop was KOMA (Omaha, NE) where we would refuel again, and wait for storms to initiate. We enjoyed a nice subway dinner, re-evaluation of the developing weather to our west, and the great service at Signature Aviation, the general aviation FBO at KOMA. At one point, the possibility of discarding an aerial chase and heading home crossed our minds due to the surface winds being too parallel to the cold front, which is not conducive to tornado production. We ended up deciding to abandon the aerial chase and head back to Kansas City. The following day was to be a down day and we would again pick the sky chasing up on May 25th.
Contemplating – Deciding whether to chase or not
The decision was finally made that we would depart and head for home, with the exception of any storms that went tornado warned along the way. As we departed KOMA for home, the tail-end charlie went tornado warned. We got a clearance to intercept the storm from Omaha Departure. The conversation was like this “Cessna N*****, 2.5 climbing 5.5, would like transition through Charlie airspace on heading of 270”. ATC responded “You do know that there is an area of extreme precipitation in that area?” I replied “Affirmative, we are documenting the tornado warned supercell that is on that heading”. ATC said “You know you are crazy, right? Clearance as requested. Any chance for pilot reports?”. We got a good chuckle out of their response and proceeded on course.
Scuddy funnel cloud from a plane
After watching the wall cloud cycle a few time, it finally fell apart, so we proceeded towards home. We survived the first two days!!!
We met up again on May 25th for a triple point play in central/western Kansas. We left Olathe and flew towards Hutchinson, where we would await initiation along the warm front and/or dryline. After a short 2hr wait, the first radar reflectivity showed an area 40miles to our NW. We were going flying.
We arrived just west of Russell, KS and witnessed what I can only describe as a beautiful and classic looking, discrete tornado warned supercell.
Stunning thunderstorm from a plane 2012
Thunderstorm Mesocyclone from a plane
We saw a really nice rotating plume of dust that reached up towards the base of the wall cloud. By definition, we saw a tornado. A rotating column of air connect to the base of a wall cloud.
Tornado from a plane
After this quit spinning and the dirt started settling, we saw a the tail-end charlie of the three discrete cells had gone tornado warned, too. We abandoned this cell and shot south, just west of Great Bend, KS and near La Crosse, KS. We were greeted with a beautiful and serene sight, as the sun illuminated the backside of the storm and left a display of vivid and warm colors for our amazement.
Sunset supercell storm from a plane – La Crosse, KS 2012
We stayed with this storm for as long as we could before regulatory compliance with FAA fuel requirements became an issue. We regretfully left this storm and headed towards KGBD for a fuel stop. As we landed in Great Bend, the new reports of tornadoes on the ground under the storm we just left behind, left a sad and disappointed feeling for everyone on board. We quickly refueled the aircraft in an attempt to get airborne again before the sunlight was gone and maybe catch a glimpse of the tornado fully condensed on the ground.
We made it airborne after the sun had set and decided to carefully and cautiously risk a night time chase near the base of the wall cloud in hopes of lightning showing us a tornado. After a few passes, the situational awareness had decreased due to the intensity of lightning flashes causing temporary blindness and being unable to see the instruments. With a heavy heart we turned towards home, thankful we had seen what we had seen, thankful for no mechanical issues, and thankful for no situations that would have resulted in an emergency.
Lightning strike near our plane
Thunderstorm lit up with lightning near our plane
It was a smooth flight home but due to the extreme headwinds feeding into the storms at the lower altitudes, we climbed up to 9,500ft MSL to get back into the westerly tailwings. 9,500ft is approximately 700mb in a standard atmosphere. The rest of the flight was relaxing and peaceful and we landed in Olathe without incident. Overall, it was a great time, one that I will hopefully do again, soon.
Want to see more images from our aerial storm chasing? Visit the Aerial Storm Chasing gallery.