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In the Wake of the Whirlwind: October tornado proves severe weather happens year-round

This time lapse radar image highlights the sudden F-1 tornado that touched down near Tinker Tinker Air Force Base at approximately 8:30 a.m. Oct. 9, 2018. (Graphic courtesy of the National Weather Service)

This time lapse radar image highlights the sudden F-1 tornado that touched down near Tinker Tinker Air Force Base at approximately 8:30 a.m. Oct. 9, 2018. (Graphic courtesy of the National Weather Service)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- To say it struck like a bolt from the blue would mean you saw it coming; no one did.  No sirens in the area heralded its wake.  Its appearance was so abrupt, base meteorologists said there was no time for on-base warnings to go out. 

At approximately 8:30 a.m. on Oct. 9, an F-1 tornado touched down near the intersection of S.E. 29th and Air Depot in Midwest City.  Personnel here would recognize the proximity of that intersection to the main gate of their installation.  Fortunately, there were no reports of injuries following the tornado. But what about next time?  And how would things be different if a tornado were to strike on a drill weekend?

While an F-1 tornado is classified by the National Weather Service as producing wind speeds in the range of 86 to 110 miles per hour, the property damage inflicted within the base perimeter included cars, vans and heavy dumpsters being overturned and tree branches brought down.  A pedestrian walking outside might not have been as fortunate, nor a base employee sitting in front of a window as debris is cast about in the wake of the whirlwind.

“The Oct. 9 weather system caught everyone by surprise,” said Col. Laurie A.  Dickson, 513th Air Control Group commander.  “The Oct. 9 tornado, while brief, was a reminder for all of us to remain alert for weather conditions that could impact our lives as well as our mission, and seek shelter accordingly.”

Capt. John P. Martin, 72nd Air Base Wing Weather Flight commander here at Tinker, described the Oct. 9 tornadoes were the products of what meteorologists call a Quasi-Linear Convective System.  More often called a “squall line,” QLCs usually manifest in Spring when the atmosphere is at its most dynamic. When the squall line bows out, or bulges, straight-line wind damage can occur.  But the sharper the curve of the bow, the more likely a transient tornado will manifest – the same type of tornado the Tinker community saw Oct. 9.  

“The Oct. 9 tornado was only on the ground for two minutes and traveled 200 yards. Transient tornadoes are weaker and shorter-lived on average than tornadoes created by supercell thunderstorms, but can manifest year-round,” said Martin. “Cold weather fronts – as opposed to summer temperatures or hurricane after-effects – can also cause these transient tornadoes can literally drop out of the sky with little warning.  And that means the threat exists year-round.”

Key to any tornado response is a means of getting the message out to all personnel affected to immediately seek shelter.  The 72nd Weather Flight forecasts weather conditions for all assets at Tinker AFB.  They use a system called the Joint Environmental Toolkit, or JET, for weather forecast generation, meteorological watch and observation management.  With this system, up to 3,000 users can simultaneously view necessary weather data – from Joint Operations Centers, to individual maintainers on the flight line, to physical fitness test managers at a base fitness center.

Like other base organizations, leadership of the 513th ACG and the 507th Air Refueling Wing both are notified by phone and e-mail of dangerous weather conditions when they develop.  Martin said that traditional Air Force reservists can register their cell phones with the Tinker At Hoc system – the purple globe at the bottom of their work computer screens – to receive weather notifications. This alert capability can be invaluable for maintainers who work on the flightline and would otherwise be unaware of deteriorating weather conditions, Martin added.

“For our reserve AWACS maintainers at Tinker, we have multiple designated tornado shelters throughout the 552nd Air Control Wing’s Maintenance Group complex,” said Lt. Col. Mark A. Vardaro, 513th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander.  “In light of the cold weather tornado earlier this week and our concerns for the safety of our Airmen, we’ll be reminding them of dangerous weather procedures during the October drill weekend.”

Vardaro said, on a normal day, part of the morning maintenance meetings includes a briefing on the weather forecast and how to handle safety-related items.  When weather threatens, Team AWACS leadership will also disseminate weather updates on e-mails, phones (voice and text), radio communications and person-to-person notifications.  All 513th ACG maintainers will be encouraged to register their cell phones with At Hoc so that they can receive notifications, even when on the flightline, in the event of future sudden weather changes.

For the reserve Airmen assigned to the 513th ACG’s new headquarters and operations facility, Bldg. 461, their designated tornado shelter area is the auditorium on the ground floor of their building.  The American Red Cross also offers a free tornado app that Airmen and their families can to stay alert in their own off-base neighborhoods.

“Whether here on base or at home with your families, I encourage everyone to practice sheltering procedures and remain alert,” said Dickson. “All of you are appreciated members of the Air Force Reserve’s AWACS community and we want each of you and your families to be safe when severe weather strikes.”