Chasing Tornadoes From The Sky

By: Rodney Harris Email
By: Rodney Harris Email

When everyone else is running away from a tornado, they’re the ones going towards it. And most of the time, they’re not doing it for the money, but for the excitement.

“It’s 90 percent waiting, and 10 percent adrenaline. That’s really all chasing is,” said veteran chaser Ken Kilbourn.

And while chasing from the ground may seem crazy, some are taking it to a new level – in a helicopter.

While not everyone has access to one, chasing a storm in a helicopter is becoming the preferred method of the self proclaimed adrenaline junkies, including Kilbourn who chases storms regularly in his television station’s chopper.

“It’s just easier to get there. You know if the tornado starts to move away from you, you can chase it and not have to worry about finding a north south road or an east west road,” Kilbourn said.

Kilbourn, who works for KWTV in Oklahoma City, has been chasing tornadoes from the air for the last 10 years, and has caught many on camera, including one most recently on Memorial Day.

Though there’s always a thrill that comes from the chase, he realizes that storm chasers also are providing a valuable advance warning to those in the path of a tornado. And those who experienced the destructive F5 tornado that struck Oklahoma City in 1999, which killed 44 people, can attest to that.

“By the time it got to the populated sections of Oklahoma City, two of the TV stations had helicopters flying by the tornado and people knew it was coming. The believed it because they were looking at it,” said Joe Schaefer, who is the Director of the National Storm Prediction Center.

Patti Zimmerman, who was an insurance adjuster in Oklahoma City and saw all the devastation first hand, echoed Schaefer’s thoughts.

“I’ve never seen anything that was like this, where it truly just wiped out a whole area. And it was amazing to me that so few people died. But I think that’s because we had the amount of warning that we did and the coverage was very good,” Zimmerman said.

And no matter how many times Kilbourn takes off to chase the next storm, he’s always excited about the opportunity to witness a tornado first hand.

“It’s almost hard to quantify as far as putting into words. I just keep thinking back to the pig farm. One second there were barns there, and the next second there weren’t. You don’t know what to say. It’s awesome, it’s amazing, it’s scary, it’s….really cool!.”

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