How to Be a Storm Chaser

An Interview with Chris Caldwell

Storm Chaser Car Show Images
With years of experience, Chris Caldwell has learned how to put together the perfect storm chasing vehicle. Chris Caldwell, all rights reserved, used with permission.

How can I become a storm chaser? is one of the most frequent questions I get asked. Last year, I reported on the National Weather Festival and a new event called the Storm Chaser Car Show. This year, I had the opportunity to complete an interview with one of the participants in the show. His name is Chris Caldwell and he works for KOCO TV 5 in Oklahoma as a professional storm chaser. He is a member of the F.A.S.T.

Team (First Alert Storm Team) and even runs is own website Ponca City Weather. Catch his video in the KOCO TV blog about building a chase car!

Anyone can join in on the celebration on Saturday, October 20th, 2007. The events are part of the National Weather Festival which includes tours of the National Weather Center, vendors, amateur radio demonstrations, and fun weather-related kids activities. As for the cars of storm chasing, awards are given out in the following categories

  • Most Hail Damage
  • Most Working Sensors
  • Most Unique
  • Most Cutting Edge
  • Best Looking
  • Meatwagon Award

If you have a car that meets any of the above requirements, you can register for the show for free! This year, there will be two separate categories for personal and sponsored vehicles.

 

How Did You Get Started in Storm Chasing?

When I started storm chasing there weren't many people chasing at that time. I had done it as a hobby and anytime a storm would be within 25 miles I would go chase it!

That was back in 1991. I got me interested in chasing when an F5 tornado passed right in front of me across highway 177 just south of Ponca City as I was on my way to Tulsa. At the time, I was driving a UPS truck.

I was headed to the airport with next-day-air packages and as I got south of town I could see this massive mile wide tornado coming from the west.

I was trying to hurry to beat it so I didn't have to wait for it to cross the road. I didn't quite make it and instead I sat and watched it hit a mobile home and it picked up a 24 foot stock trailer that was attached to a dual-wheel pickup loaded with cattle. I never did see where it landed. The mobile home itself just disintegrated. This storm actually had just hit the area that I had grown up in but I couldn't stay to make sure everyone was okay.

I continued on to Tulsa and on the way I saw numerous funnels, at least 30, and as I approached the Hallet area I came across a 2nd tornado. By then it was dark. All the way over I had to slow down and stop since we were coming across power lines down all over the place. I was able to see the tornado near the Hallet exit only from the lightning illuminating it. I got out of the vehicle and a trooper was there getting everyone under the overpass bridge.

 

But Overpasses are NOT Considered Safe…

You are right. Overpasses as tornado shelters are not considered safe. Little did we know back then that that was the wrong thing to do but we all managed to live even though the tornado went right over the top of us. I got away from there and headed into Tulsa.

I kept seeing ambulance after ambulance heading west and then I saw why…There were people searching for survivors out in a field near a housing edition on the west side of the Tulsa Metro area. I made it to the airport some 2 hours late but they held the plane and I turned around and headed back home and saw even more rescue people heading west. I had heard there was several killed in that housing plan but never did hear a final count. It was this one night of tornadoes that got me even more interested in chasing. From then on, I started going to classes put on by the National Weather Service and I started reading all the books I could find on weather.

 

What Kinds of Classes Were Available?

There is no course you go and take to become a storm chaser. Most of it is learned by going out and chasing.

I now chase for KOCO TV 5 in Oklahoma City and to chase for them you have to have some experience. They don't just throw people out that say ‘I want to chase.’ In fact all of their chasers have extensive chase time before they started chasing for them. My experience lasted from 1991 until 2002 before I started chasing for them.

 

What is Your Favorite Part of Storm Chasing?

Once a storm has shot up and it classified as severe, the chase is on. This is the part that I enjoy the most. Getting yourself in position can be hectic since we have roads to follow but the tornado itself has no highways or roads it has to stay on. I always try and get to the part of the storm that allows me the best photo opportunity as well as allows me to report back on what the storm is doing and where it is heading. I guess warning the public and letting people know its coming their way is the reason we are out there and indeed it is what I enjoy most.

 

What is Your Least Favorite Part of Storm Chasing?

My all means that would be night-time chasing. I have had...Continued on Page 2.

 

What is Your Least Favorite Part of Storm Chasing?

My all means that would be night-time chasing. I have had a couple near misses with a tornado at night. I had RFD (rear flank downdraft )winds blast me and lift the back end of my chase vehicle.

What is the Greatest Storm You Ever Chased?

That would be the storm I first spoke about above that got me interested in this in the first place.

What About Close Calls?

This would go along with my least favorite part where I spoke about the near misses with a couple tornadoes.

How Long Does it Take to Build a Chase Car?

I have a local shop do most of the radio gear. On the Durango they do the major stuff in 1 day and then as I add new equipment, it can take a few years. The total time I paid for labor for everything installed was almost 30 hours. My new chase vehicle has nothing at all in it and I will be making a video diary on the building of a chase vehicle and can be more accurate when this one is done. I am slowly ordering new radios, antennas, weather instruments, lighting, and cameras for it.

How About “Storm Chase Vacations”? What Do You Think of These?

Well, if I wasn't a chaser I would have already been on a ”chasecation” as we call them. I have people ride along with me from time to time so I know there are people wanting to get close to Mother Nature at her worst. I understand why they go on these week long chases. My son is soon to be 13 and rides with me a lot as does my wife. My son doesn't complain to me like my wife does when she goes with me but I still enjoy it either way!

Anything Else You Would Like to Add?

Never go chasing on your own. Don’t go chasing unless you have knowledge of storm structure. If you need more than that I have a story or 2 about a chase day when my wife was out with me and she was driving and I was doing speaking with the TV station and we were heard live on the air arguing.

By the way, every year I attend several classes put on by the National Weather Service.

One of these classes is done in an evening and then there are the more advanced ones that are 3 days long. This year I will also be attending the storm chaser convention since they have started doing seminars at it as well.