(Image above: Tim Samaras races to position a sensor probe in the path of a tornado, 2002; image courtesy Tim Samaras)
In our business, we meet some extraordinary people – brilliant scientists, solo circumnavigators, celebrities, captains of industry, innovators who are changing our world. Some do it for fame and glory, some for the adventure. Others set out to overcome a previously insurmountable challenge or make it big in business.
So why would someone deliberately put themselves in the path of one of the most condensed, destructive weather formations on the planet?
For the late Tim Samaras, friend of KVH and storm chaser, it was about seeking out tornadoes, putting himself in front of them, and gathering the data that would help researchers learn more about how twisters work, how to anticipate them, and how to save lives.
We had the pleasure of working with Tim for more than a decade. Each of his successive chase vehicles was equipped with an in-motion KVH TracVision system (for viewing The Weather Channel live while on the road in pursuit of a storm). He also employed our C-100 sensors as part of his in situ sensor probes, which he and his team would deploy on the ground in front of a tornado to record changes in barometric pressure, wind speed, and temperature, as well as video of the twister as it passed overhead.
“When pursuing a potential or active tornado, we must have up-to-the-minute information about the storm’s track and activity,” Tim told us in 2002. “However, when you are in the middle of Cherry County, Nebraska, the largest county in the state, for example, you can’t rely on a cell phone to keep you connected to base and weather reports. Instead, I depend on TracVision LM to keep me connected to The Weather Channel and its tornado coverage.”
Among those at KVH to work most closely with Tim was Jim Dodez, formerly KVH’s vice president of marketing and now a member of the KVH board of directors. “Tim was basically a defense contractor technician working on measuring the effects of weapons systems, etc. He was an innovative tinkerer who came up with clever ways of doing things that had never been done before, transferring a lot of what he learned in his day job to the task of measuring the inside of tornadoes – something that had never been done before and that was accepted as ‘impossible’ by the educated elite in the field.”
It was a dangerous endeavor, one that required courage and a willingness to make his auto insurance company blanch.
“During the intercept of the Happy, Texas, tornado on the night of Sunday, May 5, 2002, the tornado turned unexpectedly and we were subjected to winds exceeding 120 miles per hour. Power poles and irrigation pipes were flying around. Three of the windows in the vehicle imploded and the vehicle began to fill with debris.” – Tim Samaras
Whenever he shared his stories with us though, he never failed to report that the TracVision on his vehicle had never failed him, even in the face of “hail…the size of baseballs!”
Tragically, Tim, together with his son, Paul, and fellow storm chaser Carl Young, died in the massive El Reno, Oklahoma, tornado on May 31, 2013, as they sought to gather data to help with the response to the huge storm that was headed for Oklahoma City. His last chase was captured in a National Geographic video as well as a companion article.
For those of us who had talked and worked with Tim over the years, as well as all those in the storm chasing community, it was stunning when we learned he had died while in the field, tracking a monster tornado, one that would turn out to be the widest in history.
A new book, The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras, was released recently to coincide with the five-year anniversary of his death.
Last week would have been Tim’s 60th birthday. Those of us here at KVH who knew him, however fleetingly or remotely by phone and email, still thought about him, the passion he shared for studying tornadoes to help save lives in the future, and the innovations he brought to the science of tornado study. He was an inspiration, and we were proud to have been a part of his decades-long pursuit of the twister.