Tinker Airmen first to predict tornadoes

  • Published
  • By By Maj. Angela O'Connell
  • Tinker Air Force Base Public Affairs
You're sitting on the couch watching a brand new episode of American Idol and at the critical part - up come the local weatherman warning about impending weather and tornado watches. Rather than spring to action most simply groan about having their show preempted and go on with their evening.
   Not long ago, there wasn't a system in place to predict tornados much less a system to warn the public to take cover. That all changed on March 25, 1948 thanks to two Air Force officers stationed at Tinker Air Force Base.
   Maj. Ernest J. Fawbush and Capt. Robert C. Miller were meteorologists stationed at Tinker in 1948. This was a time before weather radar, satellites and computers predicted shifting weather patterns. Most forecasters relied on hand-drawn weather maps, weather balloons and a radar system originally intended and used as a bomb radar on B-29s in World War II.
   On the evening of March 20, 1948, Capt. Miller was on duty for the evening shift and had issued a base warning for gusty winds up to 35 mph without thunderstorms. He then settled in for a quiet uneventful night, or so he thought.
   Miller would later recount that his forecast that evening 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, Capt. Miller wrote. " Even on our crotchety old AN-PQ-13 radar 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 9:52 p.m., the squall line moved across Will Rogers Airport seven 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!"
   At 10 p.m., a vicious tornado touched down at Tinker and left a wake of injuries and $10 million worth of destroyed aircraft and property totaling over $100 million in today's dollars.
   An investigative board of officers were brought in the next day and declared that "due to the nature of the storm, it was not forecastable given the present state of the art."
   Not satisfied with the answer, that afternoon Commanding General Oklahoma City Air Material area, Fred S. Borum, directed his weather forecasters to investigate the feasibility of forecasting tornado-producing thunderstorms. This included Maj. Fawbush and Capt. Miller.
   "In the 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," described Capt. Miller. "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."
   On the morning of March 25th, just five days after the tornado, weather charts were showing the same patterns as the ones from the 20th.
   "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," said Capt. Miller.
   Capt. Miller later recounted, "General Borum looked us in the eye and asked the unsettling question, 'Are you going 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 20 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 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."
   This forecast prompted the hangering of aircraft, removal of loose objects, diverting incoming aircraft and moving base personnel to safety. Shortly after 6 p.m. that evening, a tornado touched down for a second time in five days on Tinker leaving $6 million in damage but more importantly no injuries.
   "We're still amazed that they could issue a forecast and have it hit when it did," said Steven Weiss of the National Weather Service's Storm Predication Center in Norman. "Scientists were just beginning to understand thunderstorms and tornados, and the Weather Bureau was not ready to move ahead into the tornado forecasting business."
   Maj. Fawbush and Capt. Miller became instant heroes and continued to research the art of forecasting tornados with amazing accuracy. A 1951 Tinker Take Off article commends them stating, "Of 75 tornado forecasts issued by the Fawbush-Miller method, 67 have been verified by teletype messages, newspaper clippings and highway patrol reports."
   Two Air Force officers had the courage to take a chance and triggered a chain of events which led to today's severe warning system and have saved countless lives.
   So, the next time your show is preempted or you are jolted awake by the tornado sirens instead of annoyance, you should be thankful for the early warning to get out of the path of a destructive funnel cloud that many before us never had.