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Tornado intercept vehicles

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 5:24 PM GMT on December 16, 2005

This Sunday, December 18, at 8pm, National Geographic is showing Tornado Intercept. This show highlights the use of the Tornado Intercept Vehicle (TIV), an armored monstrosity designed to be driven into the core of a weak (F-0 through F-1) tornado to collect scientific data, and film it with an IMAX movie camera. The TIV is really a modified 1997 Ford F-450 diesel pickup, engineered by IMAX cinematographers Sean Casey and Greg Eliason. The armor plating, 1/2" thick Lexan windows and other gizmos bring the weight of the vehicle up to 14,000 pounds, but it can still do 90 mph as it speeds off in pursuit of tornadoes. The TIV is equipped with a hydraulic system that lowers the vehicle flush with the ground, minimizing the risk of being overturned as a tornado's winds tear at the vehicle. The team is hoping to release an IMAX movie on tornadoes in 2008.

Figure 1. Sean Casey's "Tornado Intercept Vehicle" (TIV). Image courtesy of George Kourounis of stormchaser.ca.

From what I gather, Sunday's show will not actually show a tornado penetration, and things did not always go smoothly during the chase season of 2005. A chaser journal from their 2005 storm chases reported:

The hood to our TIV (Tornado Intercept Vehicle) slammed into our windshield and then went airborne, that we have now reached our all time low. It's a bit humbling to walk a hundred yards down a highway to pick up pieces of the car you are driving. I tried not to make eye contact with cars as they drove by. We wire the hood back to the car and head toward a storm, not knowing that someone has siphoned our rear tank empty of diesel fuel. (The truck is making a sound like a cross between that of a rattlesnake and a cicada beetle. I'm sensitive to all sounds, smells and vibrations that the vehicle makes since we've had nine breakdowns, including two car fires.)

The Tornado Attack Vehicle
There is another tornado intercept vehicle out there you may have read about, called the TA-1 or Tornado Attack Vehicle. The TA-1 was built by Steve Green, a race car driver from Mooresville, N.C. The TA-1 is a modified Baja trophy truck with armor plating, heavy-duty roll bar, and Lexan bullet-proof windows. It is designed to withstand 240 mph winds, according to Green. The TA-1 made news last year when Green put up a ride into a tornado up for sale on Ebay. Thirteen people bid on the auction, and the top bidder paid $145,000 for the opportunity to be driven into the heart of a tornado. The Tornado Attack web site says they intercepted three tornadoes in 2005, but none of the video footage shows them actually penetrating a tornado, and I don't think this has happened yet.

So, it hasn't happened yet, but the day is soon coming when one of these vehicles will drive into a tornado. I'm sure there will be another majorly hyped television show when it happens, assuming the people doing this don't get killed.

Figure 2. Steve Green's TA-1 "Tornado Attack Vehicle".

Coming Monday and all next week: In depth discussions of the hurricane/global warming connection. I would liked to have posted this discussion during the height of hurricane season, but it has taken a long time to do the research on this needed to really understand what is going on!

Jeff Masters

P.S., just for laughs: Check out what one creative Photoshop user has done to the Tornado Intercept Vehicle, making it into a Chicken Intercept Vehicle.


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.