Chase Fever: The Early Years
a biography of David Hoadley
by Tim Marshall
Storm Track, January 31, 1987
© Copyright 1987 Tim Marshall
Dave Hoadley began Storm Track. His tale of storm chasing is truly remarkable. The man has an uncanny ability to describe his emotions in nature like no one else -- a man with so much chase experience. Come to think of it, he was roaming the plains for tornadoes when this editor [Tim Marshall] was in diapers. Here is Dave's personal account.
"My interest in storms began in June, 1956 in Bismarck, ND. A severe thunderstorm knocked over trees and power lines in town. I spent the next day driving around town taking 8mm movies of the damage. I was hooked with the power and fascination of mother nature. I chased several spring seasons across Kansas and Oklahoma photographing thunderstorms, then went on to graduate school. After a couple of years, I volunteered for the obligatory ROTC army tour at Fort Riley, in KANSAS of course, where I served as a lieutenant from May, 1963 to November, 1964. The best year was 1964, when I saw one gustinado, and several funnel clouds. However, I was still looking for the 'big one'.
During the interim, while I was in Kansas, my parents moved to Washington D.C.. After my service tour ended, I returned home, and began applying to several Federal agencies. Responses were slow in coming, so I enrolled for a semester of Saturday classes at the Concoran Art Gallery. I did mostly charcoal sketches (no nudes) and soon grew tired of it. Now that spring was in the air, I looked westward, and with my parents consent, drove to Kansas to chase for two months, April and May.
I quartered each day at the Top Hat Motel on the west side of Wichita, Kansas, just west of the airport. I was still considerably on the downhill side of the learning curve, so that the long trip was not nearly as productive as it should of been. My big day came on May 25, 1965, when I drove west of Wichita, after plotting several surface maps that pointed to western Kansas. Approaching Dodge City around 1 p.m., the local radio began interrupting it's regular broadcasts with tornado warnings. I was ecstatic." (Dave recalls this chase with remarkable clarity. We all seem to remember the sights, sounds, and emotions of our first really successful chase.)
Heavy Cb's were building rapidly and well defined mammatus covered the sky surrounding Dodge City. I bolted southward toward Minneola, catching a glimpse of a small rope tornado about 20 miles distant. A squall line was approaching from the west that looked too well organized for further near-activity, so I turned east. On towards Pratt, I parked under a flanking line, and asked a local resident what was going on. The man pointed to a large pendant shaped cloud almost overhead and said incredulously to me, like I was a dunce, that it was a tornado. I didn't believe it but decided to stay and look around for awhile. The local police monitor crackled away, as several people gathered to look around.
To the southwest, frequent lightning activity was evident some 30 miles distant. Just west of me, cumulus fractus could be seen condensing and rising along the western edge of a cloud base. Deep, occasional rolling thunder rumbled overhead. Little rain was evident to the immediate north. The scene was set. About 3.5 miles to my north, a symmetrical conical funnel took shape, graceful and silent, with slowly rippling waves moving up and down the sides. A policeman next to me jumped out, and with a hand mike, described the descent and movement of the vortex. Several distant sirens in Pratt began wailing eerily and out of synch with each other in a spooky refrain. The locals just stood and looked in silent awe, as the tornado moved off to the northeast.
Once, I saw a suction vortex writhe slowly around the base, but I didn't know what it was at the time, only that it was a part of the vortex action. I took one quick picture with my 2" x 1/4" slide, large format Mamiyaflex, but then realized I was shaking like a leaf and had probably ruined the picture. I then set the camera on my car hood and took another photograph, which is the one good picture that I made. I didn't take many pictures of those early storms, as I do now, so only carried away one slide of the scene, but it was enough.
I charged into town and turned north. The normally two way, four lane street had become one way northbound, as local residents piled out of their homes into cars, charging northward with me to see the storm. People, with bibs still under their chins and fresh from dinner were taking the whole family. I got in the left-most lane and joined the throng. Several more pictures were taken of the tornado and damage to the local airport, but none that compared with that one I got on the west side of town. It was a moment I'll always remember@ the police monitor, the policeman describing some unreal, hypnotic event, the ghostly sirens moaning in the wind, and that classically shaped tornado, so close and deceptively graceful as it descended to touch a moment of history in the life of a small town.
I skipped chasing in 1966, to save annual leave for my impending honeymoon in January, 1967, so I missed the tornado which struck Topeka (ugh!). Nancy, my new bride, chased with me in 1967 for a few days around one weekend, but quickly tired of the long, hot, dusty miles of repeat driving (went through the same little Kansas town three times in one day). We didn't see anything rotate, but did get some inch diameter hail from a rapidly advancing squall line. Most frustrating were the four long hours we spent in hot Quanah, Texas, waiting for storms to develop in my forecast area. We sat in a service station parking lot sipping Cokes, while Lubbock was being pounded with several tornadoes and large hail. Frustrated, she flew back to her job and I lingered on. She hasn't chased with me since, although I invite her often.
From 1968 to 1973, I steadily acquired experience and perfected my forecasting technique. I saw two ftlnnels in 1968. but 1969 proved more interesting. On May 10, I was on a road westbound in Indiana on a cool and partly cloudy day. The temperature locally was in the low to mid 60's and dew points in the upper 40's. Going around Indianapolis, I began hearing reports of tornadoes and funnels near Terra Haute and points west. A darkening sky approached from the west, so I stopped on I-70, about 7 miles southwest of the Indianapolis beltway, near Plainfield. As the squall approached, a smooth rounded lowering began to develop under the cloud base to my northwest. Suddenly, I realized that there wasn't any film in my camera, since I was waiting to do that when I "got out west" to where tornado country was. Frantically. I dumped my camera case upside down, tore open a box of film and loaded just in time. I recorded one of my more interesting series as a tornado lowered from the edge of the squall line, moving at 50 mph, and tore up some trees and trailers in Plainfield. This line of cells continued into central Indiana, where a Zayre's roof collapsed, causing serious injury to some, and into southwestern Ohio, where one person was killed. In all, 17 tornadoes occurred on this day spawned from a very deep low (950mb) in central Illinois. Weatherwise magazine later wrote the day up with a diagram showing a split jet over the state.
1970 and 1972 were not too spectacular or novel, with small tornadoes and funnels here and there. I did pick up my first detached tornadic tubes in western Kansas, which were fun. 1971 was a good year for one nice sequence near Grand Island, Nebraska. I drove west to Oakley, Kansas and then northward into Nebraska, past McCook and Imperial. A dry line was moving into the state, just ahead of a deep low, and I caught up to the cold front just west of North Platte. With heavy cumulus building rapidly about 100 miles to my east, I turned onto I-80 and drove southeast. I stopped several times, and recorded two classic Cb's as they formed with beautiful backsheared anvils. Just southwest of Grand Island, I caught a nice rope tornado that came down in a small river valley and tore up a few farms causing about $50,000 in damage. It lingered between 5 and 7 minutes and I took many slides. Noteworthy, was the absence of static on the radio. Over that evening, there were six more tornadoes in south central Nebraska, but I got mine."