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Tinker's 1948 twin twisters, birth of tornado forecasting

Released: Apr 1, 1998


Air Force News Photo
The tornado struck several aircraft among the 2,000 stored on the Tinker infield. (Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center Office of History)

Air Force News Photo
Seventeen C-54's were victims of the first tornado. This one was picked up and slammed on its back. (Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center Office of History)

Air Force News Photo
This newspaper clipping shows Tinker's ace forecasters, Maj. Robert C. Miller and Lt. Col. E. J. Fawbush, of the Severe Weather Center, looking over the massive stack of teletype rolls they collected in 1953 to continue their research on destructive storms. (Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center Office of History)

by James L. Crowder
Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center Office of History

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. (AFNS) -- Breaking glass, splintering wood and wrenching metal all engulfed in a deafening roar. The debris and wreckage left by two tornadoes made the country's largest aircraft repair and maintenance depot look as if the enemy's aerial bombardment had been right on target both times.

The shocking sight would remain in the minds of witnesses long after the final cleanup was completed. The only softening blow was the realization that the second one could have caused much more damage had not the interaction of a few key men changed the course of events. March 20 and 25, 1948, stand as monumental dates in the history of Tinker, Oklahoma and the National Weather Service's severe storm forecasting program.

The thrust of the first Tinker tornado March 20, which struck the base at 10:22 p.m., was so tremendous, its story landed on the front page of most newspapers in America. According to one report, the tornado lasted only seven minutes but caused nearly $15 million in damage, primarily to aircraft parked on the runway.

Hail and heavy rain accompanied swirling winds clocked at 78 mph before the airfield instruments broke. Local weathermen later estimated the winds reached at least 100 mph as the installation felt the brunt of the blast.

Ralph Pursifull, the aircraft dispatcher on duty that Saturday night, said, "I knew right away it was a tornado. First thing I did was duck under my desk." He took a peek and saw a P-47 being blown about while several other planes were being lifted into the air and tossed hundreds of feet away. "Then I stuck my face as far down on the floor as I could get," he said.

John Hamilton, working the swing shift on transient aircraft, was putting blocks under a B-29 at the moment of impact. He tried clutching one of the plane's big wheels, but the tornado picked up the 137,500-pound aircraft and tossed it the length of a football field. Still shaking, Hamilton said, "I was terror-stricken, so I began crawling to the Operations Office. It was 100 yards of nightmare."

It wasn't until daybreak that a full assessment could begin. Fortunately, only two airmen and four civilians received any injuries, and they were minor. The greatest damage was to aircraft on the runway. Col. Albert G. Hewitt, chief of the Aircraft Maintenance Division, reported that 50 planes were total losses and at least another 50 were bumped and bruised but repairable.

Later, the overall property loss at Tinker was lowered to $10.25 million, but it still represented the greatest property value damage from a single tornado in Oklahoma history. The damage estimate of $10 million for aircraft, $222,000 for buildings, and $15,000 to utilities would be equal to approximately $65 million in 1998 dollars.

The weather forecaster on duty that evening had been assigned to Tinker less than three weeks. His backup, a staff sergeant, was also new to the Great Plains. After analyzing the latest surface weather maps and upper level charts, they had arrived at the same prediction, effective 9 p.m. -- gusty surface winds up to 35 miles per hour, without thunderstorms. But only 30 minutes later, a vicious storm appeared on their AN-PQ-13 radar scope. The scope, widely used by the Air Weather Service for storm detection, was designed for use as B-29 bombing radar during World War II.

Maj. Gen. Fred S. "Fritz" Borum had been commander of Tinker AFB and the Oklahoma City Air Materiel Area since July 1945. His management reputation was already established in 1948 and he was known as an innovator and experimenter.

The general's organizational skill and scientific savvy probably motivated his questioning of Tinker meteorologists early March 21. He wanted to know first, who was in charge of the installation's weather operations, and second, if they could forecast rain, why couldn't they forecast tornadoes?

When told that no one could tell if a tornado was coming until it appeared, the general ignored the answer. He wasn't satisfied with just writing off a $10 million loss as an act of God and waiting for the next one to happen. While he pushed his staff to devise a disaster preparedness plan for the airfield, he also used the judgmental prerogative of a general and ordered the head of the base weather unit and his deputy to do what no one else had ever accomplished -- predict tornadoes.

Maj. Ernest J. Fawbush and Capt. Robert C. Miller were youthful, yet seasoned weathermen of World War II. Fawbush, 33, was an expert on the frigid weather of Alaska; Miller, 28, was versed in the volatility of the South Pacific warm weather patterns. In just a few days, Oklahoma weather would change their lives forever.

From the moment they left the commander's conference room, the two weathermen began what became almost an around-the-clock historical analysis of tornadic activity. They gathered every ream of information they could from existing Air Force files and relied heavily on descriptions of the great Woodward, Okla., tornado of the previous year. Their goal was to formulate a model or profile of a thunderstorm that would spawn Mother Nature's most destructive force. They set up shop in a nondescript, 25' x 70' frame building that later became the first severe weather warning research center in the United States.

Although most methods of forecasting severe weather in 1948 were no more reliable than a farmer's nose or a rancher's eye, Fawbush and Miller noted similarities in the moisture distribution and the flow of surface winds compared with wind patterns in the lower atmosphere. While updating the current weather situation after lunch March 25, the two men were stunned to see virtually the same weather pattern developing that had occurred March 20. They knew that thunderstorms could pop up almost daily in America's heartland, but the similarities they now saw were just eerie.

They notified the command section of the approaching squall line and within minutes Borum's staff car pulled up in front of base operations. The general marched into the weather station and for the next 10 minutes watched the radar scope while the weathermen commented on the rapid development and increasing intensity of the storm.

Normally brash and confident, Fawbush and Miller were reluctant to tell Borum another tornado was coming. As Miller subsequently stated, "The chances of a tornado hitting the same spot five days later must have been astronomical. It must have been billions to one."

Like all good weathermen, they presented the situation to the commander with a lot of possibilities, ifs, coulds, and mights. Borum was not in a timid mood and yelled with a few expletives, "Are we going to have another tornado or not? Yes or no?"

Pressed into a corner with their weather maps and radar scope, the meteorologists committed to a gamble -- and possible humiliation -- and responded, "Yes; yes, sir. We are."

The general told them to get the word out; Fawbush composed the notice, Miller typed it and carried it across the foyer to base operations for dissemination, and the nation's first, operational tornado forecast was issued at that day at 2:50 p.m.

Borum's unrelenting pressure did not end there as he swiftly ordered implementation of the new Tornado Safety Plan and as many planes as could be pushed into the hangers were moved; then doors were closed and windows shut. The rows and rows of aircraft cocooned for storage across the diagonal runway were tied as securely as possible.

In surprising retrospect, Miller went home to nearby Midwest City when his duty day ended at 4:45 p.m. He later classified it as "abandoning ship" since both he and Fawbush were bemoaning the fact that if their prediction proved false, they would have to go back in front of the general and his staff the next day and explain their mistake.

Miller was so sure his career was about to go down the drain for predicting a tornado that would hit a specific location, he wondered if he could make a living as an elevator operator. Thus, in a macabre fashion, both forecasters were praying for another twister. Meanwhile, all swing-shift workers were evacuated to basement shelters and to the interiors of thick, solid buildings.

The tornado struck near the disposal plant at 5:58 p.m., almost exactly at the same spot as the tornado five days earlier. In its northeasterly mile-and-a-half path, the tornado damaged 84 B-29s and P-47s, 35 beyond repair. Several hundred yards of steel planking, used as the planes' parking surface, were ripped up and crinkled. One person was slightly injured. Winds at the edge of the storm were almost 80 mph and accompanied by moderate hail.

The commander, who stood in the back doorway of his quarters on Staff Drive, watched the tornado and heard the crash of airplanes as they were tossed around the airfield. He said the cloud was yellowish in color and shaped like a radish as it rumbled through the parked aircraft, picked up a load of muddy water, and swirled across the north boundary.

Now carried aloft by their prophetic breakthrough, Fawbush and Miller earned the support and cooperation of every weatherman who learned of their forecast. W.E. Maugham, head of the Oklahoma City Weather Bureau, gave the two researchers complete access to his office's 40 years of weather data. Later, when their reputation rippled nationwide, they gained an open door to the regional weather records unit in New Orleans, the records center for the National Weather Bureau, plus the archives of both the Air Force's Air Weather Service and the Navy's weather organizations.

In February 1951, they went national and established the Air Force's official Severe Weather Warning Center at Tinker. By then, they had their basic theory formulated and had made numerous, astute predictions by recognizing a clashing of moist and dry air flowing into a low-pressure area covered with an overhead jet stream.

Although 67 of their 75 tornado forecasts proved accurate, they always stressed that their system was not perfect, noting that tornadoes were formed so suddenly and dissipated so quickly that no more than a few minutes warning could be expected.

"Only the probability of severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hail can be predicted, and that only by forecasting the weather conditions in which storms developed," Fawbush wrote in the Air University Review. However, their statistics boasted that out of more than 200 predictions, Tinker's forecasters had been correct more than 90 percent of the time.

It was not until January 1953, that Fawbush and Miller received department-level recognition for their unique act of patriotism. Commendation medals and citations signed by Secretary of the Air Force Thomas K. Finletter were presented to the Tinker officers. The dual citations, for service rendered March 1948 to April 1952, read in part:

"Through the use of his forecasts, military installations throughout the United States have been enabled to prepare for tornados, high winds and hail, while pilots have been forewarned of icing conditions and degree of turbulence. These services have forestalled equipment damage amounting to millions of dollars.

"In cooperating with the United States Weather Bureau, he has also rendered a great service to the American public, by dispelling, to a large degree, the surprise factor inherent in most violent storms. By pioneering in this new meteorological field, by helping to save human lives and great amounts of government property...

Interestingly, Miller always believed Borum was the one who should have received the credit for the historic warning since he was the one that pushed them into it.

Fawbush continued weather research for the Air Force and left Tinker in early October 1955 for an assignment with a weather squadron in Libya. He later worked for the Department of Defense in New Mexico and Arizona, then retired to Sierra Vista, Ariz., where he later died. Miller, served at Tinker until 1955 when he became chief forecaster at the Air Force's Weather Central at High Wycombe Air Base, England. He completed his military career only to become chief civilian scientist for analysis and forecasting with the Air Force's global weather center at Offutt AFB, Neb. He later moved to Laurel, Md., to operate a military memorabilia store in the Washington area.


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