A ONE IN TWENTY-MILLION CHANCE–The True Story of the First Tornado Forecast–Part I

The aftermath of the March 20, 1948, tornado at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma.

The aftermath of the March 20, 1948, tornado at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma.

In the mid-20th century, tornado forecasting was considered to be beyond the “state of the art,” or in other words, impossible.  Twisters were deemed acts of God.  And any meteorologist attempting to predict what the Almighty had in mind would have been labeled a fool, a charlatan, or a court jester.  Maybe worse.

Yet two young air force weather officers found themselves, through no intent of their own, thrust into the unenviable position of having to make a tornado-no tornado forecast for Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, on a stormy March day 66 years ago.

The story begins on March 20, 1948, at Tinker, a sprawling Air Material Command base that sits on the southeast side of Oklahoma City.

Captain Robert C. Miller was the swing-shift duty forecaster that day.  He’d been assigned to Tinker less than a month earlier.  He and his backup, a staff sergeant also new to Tinker, had virtually no experience forecasting Great Plains’ weather.  The conclusion by both forecasters after examining the weather charts that evening was that they were in for a “dry and dull night.”

They couldn’t have been more wrong.  Around 9:30 p.m., thunderstorms suddenly came into view just 20 miles southwest of Tinker on the base’s “crotchety old” AN/APQ-13 radar.

(Author’s note: the AN/APQ-13 wasn’t really a weather radar.  It was a World War II bomb-aiming radar modified for weather detection.  The things were still in use 15 years later when I entered the air force.  Even though it had an ostensible range of 100 miles, it really wasn’t much good beyond about 20.  Even at that range, you often couldn’t tell whether you were looking at a squall line or the 2nd Armored Division.)

The storms, now filling the sky with vivid sheets of lightning, appeared to be moving rapidly.  The NCO forecaster issued a thunderstorm warning for Tinker, but it was too late for personnel to take any effective actions.

At 9:52 p.m., a vicious thunderstorm with winds gusting over 90 mph careened into Will Rogers Municipal (now World) Airport only seven miles west of Tinker.  A stunning report followed: TORNADO SOUTH ON THE GROUND MOVING NE.

About this time, the young forecasters at Tinker probably had visions of their military careers being swept away to the Land of Oz like Dorothy and Toto.  Sure enough, eight minutes later, the storm slammed into Tinker.  A large tornado, black and ugly against a lightning-lit cauldron of clouds, churned over the base.

Miller and his sergeant crouched in the Base Operations building, “not really believing,” as the massive funnel slashed through Tinker.  A large window in Base Ops shattered.  Debris filled the air.  Personnel in the control tower dived for cover, but too late.  Several were badly cut by flying glass as the windows in the tower exploded.

As quickly as it hit, the twister was gone.  It lifted and dissipated over the northeast edge of the base.  But the damage had been done: $10 million-worth.  At least there were no fatalities.

The next morning, five general officers flew into the ravaged base and convened an investigation board.  Captain Miller and the base weather station’s commander, Major Ernest J. Fawbush, were called to testify–not something they looked forward to.

But the outcome of the investigation was more positive than anyone could have foreseen.  That afternoon, the commanding general of the Oklahoma City Air Material Area, Fred S. Borum, directed the base weather station to “investigate the feasibility of forecasting tornado-producing thunderstorms.”

Careers saved, Miller and Fawbush plunged headlong into the task.  For the next three days the two officers pored over surface and upper-air analyses, not just for the Tinker tornado, but for several other outbreaks.  Certain similarities in the weather patterns emerged and seemed to support the theories advanced by a handful of researchers regarding the cause and behavior of twisters.

Miller and Fawbush had no inkling their research was about to be tested.

PART II will be posted Friday.


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