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, after a severe thunderstorm knocked over trees and power lines in town. I spent the next day driving around, taking 8mm movies of the damage. I was soon hooked on the power and fascination of mother nature. The next six years were spent chasing and photographing thunderstorms across the Dakotas --then on to graduate school. After a couple of years, I volunteered to take my ROTC/Army tour of duty 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 gustnado and several funnel clouds. However, I was still looking for the "big one."
While in Kansas, my parents moved back to Washington, D.C.. After the Army, I moved there also and applied for jobs with several Federal agencies. Responses were slow in coming, so I enrolled for a semester of Saturday classes at the Corcoran Art Gallery. I did mostly charcoal sketches (no nudes) but soon grew tired of that. With spring in the air, I looked west and returned to the plains for two months of extended chasing (April-May).
I quartered each day at the Top Hat Motel on the west side of Wichita, just west of the airport. I was still considerably on the downhill side of the learning curve, so that long trip was not nearly as productive as it could have been. My big day came on May 25, 1965, when the forecast pointed to southwest Kansas. As I approached Dodge City around 1PM, the local radio began interrupting 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. I bolted south toward Minneola, catching a small rope tornado 20 miles away. A linear squall line was quickly approaching, so I turned east. On the west side of Pratt, I parked near a group of cars and observers under the flank of a newly developing, broken Cb line and asked a local resident what was going on. The man pointed to a large pendant shaped cloud almost overhead and said to me, like I was a dunce, that it was tornado. I didn't believe it, but decided to stay and look around for awhile. The radio from a local police car relayed intermittent reports, as people look nervously to the sky.
In the distant southwest, frequent lightning was evident. Just to the west, cumulus fractus rapidly condensed and rose along the western edge of the cloud base. Deep, occasional thunder rumbled overhead. Little rain was evident to the north. The scene was set. About 3 1/2 miles to the north, a symmetrical cone funnel took shape, graceful and silent, with slowly rippling waves moving up and down the sides. A patrolman next to me jumped out with a hand mike and described the descent. 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 about the base but didn't know what it was at the time, only that it was a part of the main vortex. I took one quick picture with a 2 1/4" slide, large-format, Mamiyaflex, but then realized I was shaking like a leaf and had probably ruined it. I quickly set the camera on my car hood and took another, which was the one good picture that day. I didn't take as many of those early storms as I do now, so only carried away one slide of that 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 north to see the storm. People, some with bibs still under their chins and fresh from dinner, were taking their whole families. 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 the one I got on the west side. It was a moment I'll always remember -- the police radio; the patrolman describing some unreal, hypnotic event; the ghostly sirens moaning in the wind; and that classic cone tornado, so close and deceptively graceful as it descended to create 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, so I missed the Topeka tornado (ugh!). My new bride, Nancy, chased with me in 1967 for a few days around one weekend, but quickly tired of the long , hot, dusty miles (she claims we went though the same small Kansas town three times in one day !). We didn't see anything other than one inch 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 (wrong) forecast area. We sat in a service station parking lot, sipping Cokes, while -150 miles away- Lubbock was being pounded with tornadoes and hail. She hasn't chased with me since, although I have invited her.
From 1968 to 1973, I steadily acquired experience and perfected my forecasting technique. I saw two funnels in 1968, but 1969 proved more interesting. On May 10, I was on I-70, west of Indianapolis on a cool, windy, partly cloudy day. The temperature was in the low to mid 60's with dew points in the upper 40's. Going around Indianapolis, I began hearing reports of tornadoes and funnels near Terre Haute and points west. Darkening clouds rapidly approached, so I stopped southwest of the beltway near Plainfield. As the squall approached, a smooth, rounded lowering developed under the cloud base to my northwest. Suddenly, I remembered there wasn't any film in my cameras! I was waiting to load when I "got out west," to tornado country. Frantically, I dumped the camera case upside down, spilling lenses and camera gear all over the seat, tore open a box of film and loaded just in time. A small cone tornado lowered from the edge of the squall line, moving 50 MPH, and tore up trees and trailers near Plainfield. This line continued into central Indiana, where a Zayer's roof collapsed, causing serious injury to some, and into southwestern Ohio where one person was killed. In all, 17 tornadoes were reported, spawned from a very deep 950mb low in central Illinois. Weatherwise magazine later wrote it up with a diagram showing a split jet over the state.
1971 was a good year near Grand Island, NE. I drove west to Oakley, KS and then north to Nebraska. A strong dry line was moving into the state, ahead of a deep low and cold front just west of North Platte. With heavy cumulus building rapidly 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 $50,000 damage. Noteworthy was the absence of static on the radio. Over that evening, five more touched down across southern Nebraska. Those were the highlights of the early years."