Twisting Tornado

  • Published
  • By Capt. Jeffrey Gipson
  • 509th OSS/OSW
"Are you all okay up there, sir?"

"I don't know. We'll call you when this thing gets past us. We're taking shelter."

This is a conversation between an operational weather squadron and a combat weather team, no one in tornado alley wants to hear.

The severe weather season started with a low roar at Whiteman AFB, Mo., on March 12, 2006. Four confirmed tornadoes touched down over a period of five hours and within 10 miles of America's renowned stealth bomber fleet. Then the "bang" came. However, this was not from the tornado, but from the outstanding performance of the 509th OSS/OSW combat weather team at Whiteman AFB, Mo. and the 26th OWS, Barksdale AFB, La. This turned out to be one of the most concentrated and relentless severe tornado outbreaks for the midwest in recent memory.

The beginning; Saturday, March 11

6 p.m. CST (0000 Zulu Time)
Model data brought more concern as it showed further destabilization of the atmosphere into the afternoon and evening. With the permission of his lead forecaster, Senior Airman Robert Royals, 26th OWS forecaster, called the National Weather Service office at Pleasant Hill, Mo. to get their assessment of the situation. They were also anticipating an exceptional weather day.

7 a.m. CST
The CWT's overnight 0600 Zulu model runs clearly showed no reprieve from their bleak assessments

7:13 a.m. CST
The 26th OWS issued a Tornado Watch with complete concurrence of the CWT. 12 p.m. CST

12 p.m. CST
A surface dryline was stretching southward through eastern Kansas and slowly pushing eastward with the approaching low. As the dryline became more pronounced over the next hour, supercell thunderstorms began to erupt along this boundary and push northeast toward Missouri.

1 p.m. CST
The morning's upper-air soundings, in conjunction with surface temperatures, verified the model forecast, Missouri was under an unstable atmosphere for severe weather, and these supercells were moving directly into the heart of this instability. Over the next few hours, they ripped across eastern Kansas and into western Missouri developing distinct hook echoes as they traveled the 160 miles to Whiteman AFB.

2:30 p.m. CST
It was clear one of those well-defined hook echoes was zeroed in on the base. Focused on their Open Systems Principal User Processor radars, CWT Deputy Flight Commander Capt. Jeffrey Gipson and OWS Regional Manager Tech. Sgt. Davie Lewis agreed on the tornado warning.

3:29 p.m. CST
From the tower cab, Senior Airman Dan Endris observed a funnel cloud skirting the northwest corner of the base, verifying the warning with 32 minutes of lead-time. This first round of storms had the unfortunate effect of clearing the atmosphere of clouds, increasing surface heating and providing even more instability for the next batch of storms forming on the dryline still lagging to the west. By twilight, it became clear the day was not even close to being over.

6:30 p.m. CST
A particularly strong storm started to show signs of splitting 35 miles west of the base. After three volume scans, the two distinct convection cores became clear and the classically tornadic, right-moving storm was coming down U.S. Highway 50 toward Whiteman AFB with its hook echo growing more defined as it approached.

The CWT and the OWS agreed to issue the tornado warning as the slow-moving storm crept toward base. Shortly after hanging up phones, the OWS called back asking Whiteman to issue the warning - the OWS's dissemination tool had jammed and life-saving minutes of lead time would be lost during troubleshooting without immediate action. The transition was seamless and the warning was issued by CWT forecaster Staff Sgt. Kevin Mattingly.

Eight miles west of the base, the storm became caught up in the southwesterly steering flow and began to drift just north of base. NWS's post-storm assessments later showed it had a clear touchdown only five miles north of base, ultimately causing F3 damage on the Fujita scale.

The adrenaline high from this near miss quickly subsided as everyone realized the next hook echo was inbound and on pace for arrival in less than an hour. After discussion with Tech. Sgt. Lewis, Capt. Gipson updated 509th Bomb Wing Commander, Brig. Gen. Christopher Miller, on the situation. On the CWT's recommendation Brig. Gen. Miller ordered the warning remain active with the sirens sounding to avoid confusion on the base by sounding an all clear 20 minutes before another warning would be issued. As the last supercell approached, it threw down two-inch hail and a 52-knot wind gust. Then, after a stroke of lightning, Master Sgt. S. Todd Simmons, CWT Non-Comissioned Officer in Charge asked Capt. Gipson , "Does that look like a rain shaft to you?"

As they ran back to the CWT counter Capt. Gipson had Staff Sgt. Mattingly transmit the tornado observation, Capt. Gipson picked up the OWS hotline as it rang. "Are you all okay up there, sir?" asked Senior Airman Royals.

"I don't know. We'll call you when this thing gets past us. We're taking shelter," the Capt. answered.

Once the winds calmed down, CWT leadership went to the flightline to check on the B-2 hangars; all were intact. This potential multi-billion dollar disaster had luckily been avoided. The assessment later revealed F2 damage barely two miles south of base. This second warning was out for just over an hour and verified two separate tornadoes.

In the aftermath of this event, the reason for success clearly stood out: communication between the OWS and CWT was seamless and fostered good coordination between both parties in their responsibilities.

Ultimately the investment made in team building through face-to-face interaction during OWS/CWT visits and Regional Weather Conferences paid huge dividends through the outbreak. The teamwork between 26th OWS and the Whiteman CWT provided full desired lead times during four separate tornadoes in close proximity to more than 7,500 base personnel and family members, as well as over $46 billion in taxpayer assets. All were given ample time to seek shelter and there were no injuries on base or aircraft left exposed to the hail and high winds. At the end of a very long day, the OWS/CWT team were able to chalk up a victory.