Abstract

Editor’s note: The following, edited by Charlie Crisp, is taken from an unpublished manuscript (The Unfriendly Sky) by the late Colonel Robert C. Miller.

A Plea for Understanding

The close knit world of the tornado and severe thunderstorm forecaster often seems somewhat demented to those not knowledgeable in this discipline. This apparent derangement is based on our seemingly ghoulish expressions of joy and satisfaction displayed whenever we verify a tornado forecast. This aberration is not vicious; tornadoes in open fields make us happier than damaging storms and count just as much for or against us. We beg your indulgence, but point out the sad truism that we rise and fall by the blessed verification numbers. There is a fantastic feeling of accomplishment when a tornado forecast is successful. We are really nice people but odd.

Robert C. Miller, Colonel, USAF

March 20, 1948. I was assigned forecasting duty in the Tinker Air Force Base Weather Station, under command of Major Ernest J. Fawbush (E.J. to me), on the first of March 1948 [Fig. 1]. The evening of March 20th, while on the evening shift, I was rudely awakened to the sometimes vicious vagaries of Mother Nature. There were two of us on shift that night. My backup forecaster was a Staff Sergeant, also new to the Tinker Weather Station. We analyzed the latest surface weather maps and upper charts and arrived at the sage conclusion that except for moderately gusty surface winds, we were in for a dry and dull night. We were not astute enough to note that the upper-air analyses, received in completed form over the facsimile net from the USWB in Washington, depicted erroneously analyzed moisture fields. We issued a Base warning for gusty surface winds up to 35 mph without thunderstorms, effective at 9 p.m. local time. This forecast gravely underestimated the gravity of the situation. Shortly after 9 p.m., stations to our west and southwest began reporting lightning and by 9:30 thunderstorms were in progress and, to our surprise, detectable only twenty miles to the southwest of the Base. Even on our crotchety old AN-PQ-13 radar (Originally intended and used as a bomb-aiming radar on B-29’s in WW II, this radar was extensively employed for storm detection by Air Weather Service in the Post-war period. It had an ostensible range of 100 miles.), the leading thunderstorm cells looked vicious and were moving very fast. The Sergeant began typing up a warning for thunderstorms accompanied by stronger gusts even though we were too late to alert the Base and secure the aircraft. At 9:52p.m. the squall line moved across Will Rodgers Airport 7 miles to our west southwest. To our horror they reported a heavy thunderstorm with winds gusting to 92 miles per hour and worst of all at the end of the message, “TORNADO SOUTH ON GROUND MOVING NE!” We had had it for certain! We could only pray that this storm would change course and move southeast. There was no such miracle and at 10 p.m. the large tornado, visible in a vivid background of continuous lightning, and accompanied by crashing thunder began moving from the southwest to northeast across the base. We watched it, not really believing, as it passed just east of the large hangars and the operations building where we crouched in near panic. Suddenly the glass in the control tower to our right succumbed to the pressure differential caused by the vortex, and all the glass shattered. The control tower personnel were badly cut. They had not abandoned the tower despite the 78 mile an hour winds around the outer fringe of the tornado. Seconds later the Operation Building’s large window blasted outward into the parking area. Debris filled the air. Then, suddenly, the churning funnel lifted and dissipated over the northeast edge of the Base.

Fig. 1.

Lieutenant Colonel Ernest J. Fawbush (left) and Captain Robert C. Miller (right). [Official USAF photo, circa 1951, courtesy Cynthia (Fawbush) Goff.]

Fig. 1.

Lieutenant Colonel Ernest J. Fawbush (left) and Captain Robert C. Miller (right). [Official USAF photo, circa 1951, courtesy Cynthia (Fawbush) Goff.]

March 22–24, 1948. In three days of highly concentrated effort we analyzed not only the surface and upper-air weather charts prior to the Tinker tornado, but for several other past tornadic outbreaks. Certain similarities in the weather patterns preceding such storms did appear and, in addition, supported theories advanced by other researchers interested in the cause and behavior of tornadoes. Using our findings and incorporating those of others—most notably, excellent work by USWB [U.S. Weather Bureau] personnel such as the late Mr. J. R. Lloyd, Meteorologist in charge at Kansas City, Missouri; A. K. Showalter and J. R. Fulks—we listed several weather parameters considered sufficient to result in significant tornadic outbreaks when all were present in a geographical area at the same time. The problem faced by the forecaster was to consider the current surface and upper air data, determine the existence of these parameters or the probability of their development, and then project the parameters in space and time in order to issue the “tornado threat area” with a reasonable degree of confidence and leadtime. The size of the threat area would cover 20–30 000 square miles. Such a detailed forecast procedure was time and labor consuming and required intensive and specialized analysis.

March 25, 1948. On the morning weather charts of the 25th of March 1948, just five days after the Tinker storm, we noted a great similarity between the charts of the 20th and the 25th. After analyzing the surface and upper-air data, a prognostic chart was prepared for 6:00 p.m. local time showing the expected position of the various critical parameters. This chart resulted in the somewhat unsettling conclusion that central Oklahoma would be in the primary tornado threat area by late afternoon and early evening. General Borum [Fig. 2] was notified and shortly thereafter arrived at the weather station.

Fig. 2.

Major General Fred S. Borum. Commander of Oklahoma City Air Material Area in 1948. (Official USAF photo, circa 1950, courtesy Tinker AFB History Office.)

Fig. 2.

Major General Fred S. Borum. Commander of Oklahoma City Air Material Area in 1948. (Official USAF photo, circa 1950, courtesy Tinker AFB History Office.)

He was very interested and most knowledgeable when it came to weather. He was highly proficient in the operation of our local radar and loved to watch the scope during thunderstorm outbreaks. He digested what we had told him and asked, “Are you planning to issue a tornado forecast for Tinker?” There was a period of uneasy quiet until E.J. spoke up.

“Well it certainly looks like the 20th, right Bob?”

Oh, great! I wanted to turn and ask my Sergeant friend the same question, but he wasn’t on shift.

I replied, “Yes, E.J., it certainly looks like it did on the 20th.”

After hearing these helpful observations, the General asked what we believed the critical time would be and received a useful answer this time—5 to 6 p.m. The General then decided we should issue a forecast for heavy thunderstorms during that period. He patiently explained that such a move would serve to alert the base and set phase A of his brand new, and detailed, base warning system into effect. We were more than delighted with this approach, knowing in our hearts that we were “off the hook” since this would cover us. The chance of a second tornado hitting the same spot within five days was less than 1 in 20 000 000. Far better we should take such odds rather than actually issue a tornado forecast and be laughed out of Uncle Sam’s Air Force. We issued the General’s heavy thunderstorm warning—what else?

As the day progressed, reports we received over the weather teletype network, confirmed our opinion that the weather pattern was indeed strikingly similar to that which produced the tornado on the 20th. Events were moving more swiftly, however, and any organized severe weather activity would occur during the afternoon. Stations to our west and southwest began reporting building cumulus clouds shortly after noon and by 1:30 p.m. Wichita Falls, Texas and Altus, Hobart, and Enid, Oklahoma were reporting cumulonimbus. At 1:52 p.m. the first thunderstorm echoes appeared on the radar scope 60 miles to our northwest and extended 100 miles to our southwest. By 2p.m. they were beginning to increase in number and size and organizing into a squall line. When notified of this development, General Borum headed for the weather station at once. The General spent ten minutes scanning the radar scope and commented on the rapid development and increasing intensity of the squall line. By 2:30 p.m. we determined the line was moving toward Tinker at 27 mph which would place it over the base near 6 p.m. E.J. and I glanced rather apprehensively at each other, sensing what was going to happen next. General Borum stood up, looked us in the eye and asked the unsettling question, “Are you going to issue a tornado forecast?” I knew E.J. would come up with a sensible, honest answer and he did.

“Well, Sir, it sure does look like the last one, doesn’t it Bob?”

I tried to think of a brilliant answer and found myself saying, “Yes E.J., it is very similar to last week.”

The General was not particularly impressed with this intelligence: “You two sound like a broken record. If you really believe this situation is very similar to the one last week, it seems logical to issue a tornado forecast.”

We both made abortive efforts at crawling out of such a horrendous decision. We pointed out the infinitesimal possibility of a second tornado striking the same area within twenty years or more, let alone in five days. “Besides,” we said, “no one has ever issued an operational tornado forecast.”

“You are about to set a precedent,” said General Fred S. Borum.

With a sinking feeling in the pits of our stomachs, E.J. composed the historic message and I typed it up and passed it to Base Operations for dissemination. The time was2:50 p.m. The General left, asking to be kept informed of significant developments. We discussed our suddenly impossible predicament. It seemed a hopeless situation, one where we couldn’t win and the General couldn’t lose. Base Personnel were carrying out his detailed Tornado Safety Plan, hangaring aircraft, removing loose objects, diverting incoming air traffic and moving base personnel, including the control tower personnel, to places of relative safety. I could see it now, a sure “bust” and plenty of flack thereafter. I figured General Borum wasn’t about to say, “I made them do it.” More likely it would be, “Major Fawbush and Captain Miller thought it looked a great deal like the 20th—ask them.” I wondered how I would manage as a civilian, perhaps as an elevator operator. It seemed improbable that anyone would employ, as a weather forecaster, an idiot who issued a tornado forecast for a precise location.

The squall line was fully developed by half past three and continued to move steadily toward Oklahoma City. There had been no reports of tornadoes nor any reports of hail and high winds, as yet. We were both very apprehensive and at this point would settle gratefully for a loud thunderstorm with a brilliant lightning display and hopefully a wind gust to 30 or 40 mph with perhaps some small hail. General D. N. Yates, commander of the Air Weather Service would perhaps be more merciful if we could just get a reasonably heavy thunderstorm. Shortly after 5 p.m. the squall line passed through Will Rogers Municipal Airport, but this time they not only didn’t report a tornado, but infinitely worse, a light thunderstorm, wind gusts to 26 mph and pea size hail. That did it, I abandoned ship, leaving a grim Major Fawbush to go down with the vessel.

I drove directly home. E.J. and I both lived in Midwest City, just across the highway on the north side of the base. I related the events of the day to my wife, Beverly, who was reasonably sympathetic, and then sat down to aggravate my depression systematically. A little after six o’clock it began to thunder rather quietly and rain began. There was very little wind. It became quite dark and over the base, portions of the clouds seemed to be boiling while low cloud fragments darted hither and yon beneath the base of the thunderstorm. My view was quickly obscured by heavy rain and I stopped observing the storm. During the evening the radio broadcast we were listening to was interrupted for an urgent news bulletin. I was in another part of the house but caught the words destructive tornado and Tinker Field. “Good grief,” I thought, “they’re still talking about last week’s tornado—but why break into the news.” I tried to call the weather station but the lines were dead. I felt a strange unbelieving excitement rising, told my wife I was going to the station and drove away. The base was a shambles. Poles and powerlines were down and debris was strewn everywhere. Emergency crews were busy trying to restore power, clear the streets and, in particular, to restore the main runway to operational status. I reached the station to find a jubilant Major Fawbush who described the course of events after I had given up hope. At six o’clock thunder began at the base as the squall line moved in from the southwest. E.J. and my friend, the Sergeant, were outside, observing the motion of the clouds. As the line approached the southwest corner of the field, two thunderstorms seemed to join and quickly took on a greenish black hue. They could observe a slow counterclockwise cloud rotation around the point at which the storms merged. Suddenly a large cone shaped cloud bulged down rotating counterclockwise at great speed. At the same time they saw a wing from one of the moth-balled World War II B-29’s float lazily upward toward the visible part of the funnel. A second or two later the wing disintegrated, the funnel shot to the ground and the second large tornado in five days began its devastating journey across the base very close to the track of its predecessor.

It was all over in 3 or 4 minutes. It seemed much longer. The swirling funnel left$6 million dollars in damage, $4 million less than the first storm and significantly, there were no personal injuries. General Borum’s Tornado Disaster Plan had been just as successful as the first operational tornado forecast. We became instant heroes, and in my case, the rest of my life would be intimately associated with tornadoes and severe thunderstorms. General Borum graciously refrained from mentioning the story behind the sensational forecast and he convinced General Yates that we should be allowed to concentrate on further development of our forecast system. The complexity and evolution of the pattern that instigated the sequence of events I have described boggles the mind. This first tornado forecast triggered a chain of events which led to the present day Severe Storms Forecast System and a vast national research program investigating these killer storms. Well, it did look a lot like March 20th. Even the General thought so.