May 25, 1997 Tornadoes near Harper, Anthony and Perth, Kansas

After several days of waiting, we were cautiously optimistic that we would see a tornado. I was with Charles Edwards and Casey Crosbie and the other Cloud 9 folks. Veteran storm chaser Jim Leonard and author Richard Bedard were also with our group. There was a 500 mb closed low over southern Idaho with a negative tilt trough to the southeast and a surface low to the north of Dodge City. An upper-level jet would cross south central Kansas. We wanted to go where the dryline was close to the surface low and winds were backed to the southeast. Dewpoints were in the 70's. The Weather Channel had been hyping a possible outbreak for days.

We started near Wichita, Kansas and headed toward the target area. We stopped near Hazelton at 3:30 PM and parked along a dirt road in a field to watch the sky. There was an area of cumulus (V)overhead and to the west. We waited (V) and watched (V). After changing positions, we heard at 4:25PM that there was a tornado on the ground near Norman, Oklahoma (our home base). Soon, there were reports of tornadoes to our north and south. We were frustrated yet we stayed in our original forecast area. Jim warned us that chasing after those distant storms would cause us to "lose it all." Besides, he predicted that the other tornadoes would be "munchnadoes." We were in the best area for strong, photogenic tornadoes. We continued to wait under scattered cumulus and sunny skies.

We moved to a field near Harper, Ks. and a small narrow rain shower appeared to our west at 5:50 PM. The storm rapidly enlarged and intensified. By 6:10PM, the anvil was above us and the smaller clouds around the storm had vanished. An inflow band appeared and the storm began to rotate. We observed "knuckles" on the upper portion of the storm indicative of a strong updraft. A wall cloud (V) formed by 6:20PM. Our group moved a little bit to the north, still near Harper, while Jim and Casey traveled closer to the storm. I was amazed to watch the complete life cycle of a supercell (series of 6 photos).

(V) (V) (P) (V)

A funnel cloud formed and slowly enlarged and lowered. It never completely touched the ground but a debris cloud formed underneath confirming it was a tornado. The funnel roped out and the storm slowly moved to our north. Meanwhile, a larger storm was forming to our south. We were worried that the southern storm would block our storm's inflow. Our storm produced a bell-shaped updraft. (P) (Note: a small funnel unnoticed at the time.) As the storm moved across the road, a funnel (V) formed but it didn't touchdown. To our south, tornado sirens sounded but a huge hail core (V) blocked our way. Our storm was now dying and when the hail core had moved, we rushed south toward Anthony to intercept the new and much larger storm. Once south of the new storm, we turned east along Kansas Highway 44. The large storm was to our north and was dropping brief funnels (V). At times, the landscape was sunlit with a pitch black sky (V)to the east and north. We were in a large van with Casey and Jim ahead of us. We were stuck in a long line of chasers which eventually stopped behind a police roadblock. Casey luckily had missed the roadblock and continued east watching spin-ups, power flashes and flying debris. The police let us pass the roadblock and we continued east , briefly taking a detour to avoid a washed-out bridge. More brief funnels formed on the edge of the storm. We could see large clouds of dust from the rear flank downdraft. Near Perth, Truman Boyer looked back and yelled, "Tornado!" There was a large wedge tornado forming. We drove to a better viewing area and jumped out to watch the huge wedge. It was a swirling black mass about a mile and a half away. Warm wind blew toward the tornado. There was no rain at our location.

Video Stills

Casey was closer to the tornado. He parked in front of the wedge and dropped off the (Arma)dillo-Cam (V) . Designed by Charles Edwards, the video camera was encased in an eighty-pound weight built to survive a direct hit by a tornado. He sped off just in time as the wedge crossed the road. Meanwhile, we drove away as the tornado approached. We briefly stopped again; however, it was getting dark. The tornado became rain-wrapped and difficult to see. The chase ended because of the danger of poor visibility. We met Casey and Jim near South Haven. In the distance, lightning flashed continuously from the still tornadic storm.

The next day, we went to the damage area to look for the Dillo-Cam. Telephone poles were snapped and some houses were almost wiped from their foundations. Luckily, no one was injured. We couldn't find the Dillo-Cam despite using maps and GPS. It was either picked up by someone or carried away by the storm. We then received a phone call that the Dillo-Cam was found several miles away. We met one of the local emergency managers at a gas station who had the Dillo-Cam. Sandblasted and with a broken lens, the Dillo-Cam (V) was still intact. We later reviewed the videotape which showed the tornado approaching and hitting the camera. The screen goes dark and then the only sound is of the intense wind blowing gravel and dirt against the camera. The video ends with a view of a broken telephone pole. The Dillo-Cam stayed in the same place. This was the first time in history that an object dropped in front of a tornado suffered a direct hit. The University of Oklahoma and The National Severe Storms Laboratory tried for a couple of years to drop an instrument package called TOTO in front of a tornado without success.(Twister was based on TOTO.) More recently, instrument packages called Turtles, were placed in front of tornadoes with only one partial hit. Charles now has made a Dillo-Cam II with video camera and weather instruments. He hopes to duplicate the success of the first Dillo-Cam.

V - Video still from Hi8
P - Photo from slide, Kodachrome 64

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