News 9 Pilot Jim Gardner Talks About Chasing The Deadly May Tornadoes

Friday, May 31st 2013, 12:42 pm
By: News 9

Bob Mills SkyNews9 HD Pilot Jim Gardner - First of all, I really have a tough time writing about the weeks in retrospect because, one, I'm horrible at typing. I think I type two words a minute. And two, English was not my best subject at ALL.

We all know Oklahoma has its share of bad weather in May, but who would have thought we would have three, long-track tornados in May and one that would mirror the May 3, 1999 tornado. I would like to see the odds on that.

The day of May 19, 2013 will be another date in my log book as one of the days that I will remember. My camera man, Rich Kreigel, and I picked that storm up around El Reno and tracked it through Edmond where it dropped the first tornado. We knew that there was a good chance that we would get a tornado, not really from looking at the data, but flying for so many years you just get that feeling. It's hard to explain and I don't try to.

It was a tough tornado to shoot because of all the humidity in the air. It was very hazy and the tornado became rain wrapped. But we were able to get it and all I can think of in times like that is, "Please let it track somewhere that's not populated." I hate people losing their homes.

We continued to track it up to Luther and I knew it was doing damage because I saw all the power flashes. The tornado lifted a little west of the Luther power plant and I had to get fuel. so we returned to the station and let our sister station KOTV pick it up when it came back down on the northeast side of the Luther power plant and tracked its way to Carney.

Once I refueled at the station, the weather department sent me to Norman. I wanted to return to the one at Luther but that's left up to the guys in weather, and I will say they know their stuff because they were right to send us there. When we got on that storm I kept thinking, "Please don't drop one in Norman."

Once we cleared Norman, I thought, "Whew we made it." That is when Rich spotted it on the water on the west side of Thunderbird Lake. We continued to track that one through Bethel Acres before I had to break for fuel again. When we returned we started shooting the damage.

Now a lot of people ask why we do what we do, and the answer is to save lives. Even though two people lost their lives in that tornado, you look at the damage and know there could have been many more deaths without the warnings that we provide.

The odd thing with the Norman/Bethel Acres tornado was that it was tracking mostly east and it would stop and actually turn northwest and back up. At one point I flew ahead of the tornado and lost it in the rain. I thought it had lifted but when I turned to go for fuel there it was on the northeast corner of Lake Shawnee in the form of a huge water spout. That's the first time I had seen a tornado back up like that.

At the end of the day I thought, "It's over, two long track tornados in one day." We were tired and ready to call it a day. Little did we know this was just the beginning to one of the largest tornados in history; one that would bring up a lot of old memories.

May 20, 2013 started out again as one of those days you just know something is going to happen. I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this, but just I'll just say that when we watched the birth of that tornado just northwest of Newcastle and started tracking it, a feeling entered the pit of my stomach. I was giving a live report and at one point I realized I was flying in the same exact spot as I was on May 3, 1999 and, David Payne was reporting from the exact same spot he had that year. It was déjà vu. I knew, and later he told me the same thing, that it was going to be bad.

When chasing a tornado like that, you have to contend with inflow winds and try to hold the helicopter at an altitude that gives the camera a clean shot of the tornado. What was really unusual about the May 20 tornado compared to May 3 was the inflow was not that bad and was actually pretty smooth from start to finish. Mother Nature has a way of telling you when you're too close.

The other thing that goes through your mind when chasing a tornado of that size is the debris falling out of the top of the storm.

I can tell you I was sick after that chase and had the same flood of emotions I did on May 3, 1999. David Payne and I talked about that storm in length. We lost 24 people that day, where on May 3 we lost 44. We cut it in half, and I hope it's due the great work we all do to give as much warning as we can. Maybe next time we will not lose anyone.

People ask me if I'm ever scared, I can tell you honestly no. I'm working on flying the helicopter, reporting, calculating fuel and fuel stops, holding the helicopter in a position to give the camera man the best shot and also staying in touch with the weather department to let me know what the storm is doing and if it's changing tracks.