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



A plaque commemorating the first successful tornado forecast sits in front of a WWII-era B-29 bomber at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma.

A plaque commemorating the first successful tornado forecast sits in front of a WWII-era B-29 bomber at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma.

After General Borum’s statement that Captain Miller and Major Fawbush were “about to set a precedent,” Fawbush composed the forecast–what would now be called a tornado warning (albeit one with a long lead-time)–Miller typed it up and handed it off to Base Operations for dissemination.

Both men sensed their careers circling the drain.  Miller wondered how he’d manage as a civilian.  It seemed unlikely anyone would want to employ an idiot who’d issued a tornado forecast for a precise location.  Maybe, if he were lucky, he mused, he might catch on as an elevator operator someplace.

Based on the tornado forecast issued reluctantly by Miller and Fawbush, Tinker AFB personnel scurried to carry out the new and detailed Tornado Safety Plan.  They hangared aircraft, secured loose objects, diverted incoming air traffic, and moved people, including those manning the control tower, to places of relative safety.

Miller and Fawbush remained glued to the radar scope, watching the squall line sweep steadily toward Tinker and Oklahoma City.  By 3:30 p.m., however, there had been no reports of tornadoes or even any damaging wind gusts.  Their forecast was looking more and more like what the two forecasters had feared: an ignominious bust.

Perhaps the best that could be hoped for, the two officers agreed, was a thunderstorm packing 30 or 40 mph gusts and some small hail.  With that, they might retain at least a smidgen of respectability.

Shortly after 5 p.m., the squall line punched through Will Rogers, this time sans a  tornado.  Worse, the airport reported only a light thunderstorm with gusts to 26 mph and pea-sized hail.

That did it for Captain Miller.  He abandoned ship leaving Major Fawbush “to go down with the vessel.”  Miller drove directly home, to Midwest City, on the north side of the base.  He related the events of the day to his wife who seemed “reasonably sympathetic.”  After that, wrapped in depression, he sat quietly, listening to the distant rumble of thunder, the patter of raindrops, and the soft rustle of a light breeze.

In the direction of the base, darkening clouds caught his eye.  Fascinated, he watched for several minutes.  “The sky,” he said, “seemed to be boiling.”  Ragged clouds, dipping and darting, spun beneath the base of the storm.

Heavy rain eventually obscured his view of the turbulence and he sat down to dinner.  After dinner, he caught a few words of the evening newscast from a radio in another part of the house:  “Urgent news bulletin . . . Tinker field . .  destructive tornado.”  Good grief, he thought.  They’re still talking about last week’s tornado. Then another thought hit him: Why break into a newscast with old news?

He raced for the phone and tried to call the base weather station, but the line was dead.  Excitement rising, he took off in his car for Tinker.  He discovered the base in shambles.  Poles and power lines down.  Debris everywhere.  Emergency crews busy clearing streets and runways.

At Base Ops, he found Major Fawbush in a jubilant mood.  A strange reaction, one would suppose, to a tornado strike.  But, despite the destruction surrounding them, the two officers had just proved the viability of tornado forecasting–an historic event.

Fawbush, words spilling from him like a waterfall, told Miller he watched the squall line approach.  Two thunderstorms seemed to join, he said, with a counterclockwise cloud rotation developing around the point of merger.  “Suddenly, a large cone-shaped cloud bulged down, rotating . . . at great speed.”

Stunned, Fawbush spotted a wing from a mothballed B-29 float lazily up toward the bulge, now a funnel.  The wing disintegrated, the funnel “shot to the ground,” and the second large tornado in five days swept over Tinker AFB.  But this time, the facility was prepared.  It suffered “only” $6 million in damage and, thanks to the forecast, no injuries.

Thus, Robert Miller and Ernest Fawbush became the fathers of modern-day tornado forecasting, and planted a seed that would eventually blossom into the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.

Thanks to their efforts and the exhortations of General Fred Borum, tens of thousands of lives have undoubtedly been saved over the six-plus decades since March 25, 1948.

All because three air force officers challenged one-in-20,000,000 odds.

NOTE: This story is based largely on an unpublished manuscript (ca. 1977) by Colonel Robert C. Miller as transcribed by Charlie A. Crisp of the National Severe Storms Laboratory.

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