Their triumph born of disaster Forecasting: An anniversary celebration in Oklahoma acknowledges the pivotal contribution of two Air Force officers who, in 1948, issued the first successful tornado forecast.

Sun Journal

March 23, 1998|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,SUN STAFF

It was a slim chance. Perhaps one in 20 million, maybe less. The tornado hit on March 25, 1948, in the same place another had struck only five days before.

Even more extraordinary, for the first time, two forecasters had predicted that it would.

As Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first successful tornado forecast this week, the unprecedented achievement of Capt. Robert C. Miller and Maj. Ernest J. Fawbush will be memorialized with a red granite monument. And their ground-breaking methods are honored and built upon every day in severe-weather forecasts by meteorologists.

Fawbush and Miller proved that tornadoes could be predicted. "I compare the Fawbush-Miller forecasts ... to the Wright brothers' flight and the impact on aviation," says Gary Grice, deputy director of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., which issues severe-thunderstorm and tornado watches for the nation.

The triumph was born of a disaster. Miller, now a retired colonel who lives with his wife, Beverly, in Laurel, wrote about it in the 1970s:

On March 20, 1948, he and another forecaster "arrived at the sage conclusion that except for moderately gusty surface winds, we were in for a dry and dull night." They issued only a wind warning for Tinker and were horrified when a severe storm began bearing down on the base.

"At 10 p.m. the large tornado, visible in a vivid background of continuous lightning and accompanied by crashing thunder, began moving from the southwest to northeast across the base," Miller wrote. It shattered the glass in the control tower and destroyed millions of dollars' worth of aircraft.

To avoid another catastrophe, Maj. Gen. Fred S. Borum ordered Miller and Fawbush to come up with a reliable way to predict tornadoes.

Miller's study of the ocean's layers of temperature and currents helped him to think of the air in terms of levels, too, according to Charlie Crisp, a meteorologist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman. Miller and Fawbush created composite charts that juxtaposed data from different altitudes and noted wind direction, temperature and moisture.

"Then they started to tie all this stuff together," Crisp says.

The air data on March 25, Miller wrote, brought them to "the somewhat unsettling conclusion that central Oklahoma would be the primary tornado threat area by late afternoon and early evening."

The men notified General Borum. Without him, the forecast might never have been issued, says Robert A. Maddox, former director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory.

"The base had been so heavily damaged and had such a serious event there, the general in charge of the base absolutely didn't want something like that to happen without some kind of warning procedures in place," Maddox says. "The fact that the general spent so much of the day in the forecast office, I think, had a huge psychological effect on Fawbush and Miller."

The general repeatedly asked the men whether they were going to issue a tornado forecast. Finally, they agreed, and Borum executed a safety plan that involved putting aircraft in hangars, diverting air traffic and moving personnel.

And the tornado struck, causing $6 million in damage -- but $4 million less than the March 20 twister.

"There wasn't a great awareness this had happened in this particular week in 1948," Maddox says. But it was inevitable that the public would learn of the great potential of tornado forecasts. They were long overdue.

As early as the 1880s, when the weather service was still under the jurisdiction of the Army's Signal Corps, Sgt. John P. Finley came up with criteria to determine when tornadoes were likely. ++ But his efforts fell out of favor, partly because the government was afraid of causing panic. Until 1938, in fact, the word "tornado" was banned from civilian Weather Bureau forecasts.

"The idea was that the fear would be worse than the tornado itself, which was stupid," says Marlene Bradford, who has recently finished a doctoral dissertation at Texas A&M University on the history of tornado forecasting.

Before Fawbush and Miller, she says, there was no tornado forecasting on a national level. "Tornadoes were pretty much ignored ... and the death rates were astronomical in the 1920s and '30s."

Eventually, civilians got wind of Fawbush and Miller's continuing JTC success. "People like Lyndon Johnson [then a U.S. senator from Texas] and the senators of Oklahoma said: 'We know this is possible, because the Air Force is doing it,' " Bradford says. Their outcry prompted the Weather Bureau to issue its first successful tornado watch in 1952.

The 1948 forecast, Maddox says, "led to a whole new kind of severe-weather forecasting service to the public and the country."

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