Much of this was well documented on the Discovery Channel's Storm Chasers. But it only told part of the story. Samaras and Young were one component of a much larger endeavor. Left out was the rest of TWISTEX, a loose confederation of Ph.D.s, trained spotters and meteorologists who fanned out behind the tornadoes in Chevy Cobalts, assembling themselves into a dragnet of atmospheric measurements. As important as it was to get readings from inside tornadoes, they also needed to understand the environment that caused them to form, intensify and unravel. But that part of the operation didn't make for good TV, so the camera crew focused on Grzych, Samaras and Young and their daredevil tornado intercepts.

The chasers were willing to get close enough to smell ripped-up grass or the scent of splintered lumber and shredded insulation given off by the twister. Once, when they ventured into Dixie Alley and found a tornado hidden inside the deep pine woods near Canton, Mississippi, Grzych pleaded with them to stay out of the trees. But Samaras had already announced that they would deploy a probe at all costs. They narrowly missed a tornado that felled timber and power lines as it crossed the road no more than a hundred yards in front of them. As Samaras surveyed homes scoured from their foundations, he told the cameras and his colleagues that this was why they chased — to feed hard data into the study of these dimly understood and deadly phenomena. The risks, for him, were worth it. Yet they were carefully calculated, and he had always managed to bring his crew out alive.

Samaras, a slight, professorial-looking man with an aquiline nose and kind eyes, was an autodidact with only a high-school education. He nonetheless went on to become a star engineer at Applied Research Associates in Littleton, specializing in blast testing and airliner-crash investigation. The National Transportation Safety Board recognized him for his work on TWA flight 800, which exploded over the Atlantic Ocean in 1996, killing 230 passengers.

Tim Samaras died in this car when it was picked up by a tornado.
KWTV News 9
Tim Samaras died in this car when it was picked up by a tornado.

Samaras loved a puzzle, to know how things worked. And there were few greater mysteries than the titans that tore through the plains east of his home in the Colorado foothills. Samaras had nursed an interest in tornadoes since he was a boy, when he first laid eyes on the twister in The Wizard of Oz. He began chasing tornadoes in his twenties, wanting only to be near them, transfixed by their terrible beauty, and by their sounds and the way they smelled. When experiencing the tornadoes was no longer enough, and his analytical mind sought questions that his eyes couldn't answer, his engineering ability and resources transformed a passing fascination into a legitimate scientific pursuit. Using a wind tunnel, he developed turtle probes that remained firmly anchored to the ground even as they took a direct hit.

They were put to the ultimate test on June 24, 2003, a couple miles north of tiny Manchester, South Dakota. Samaras jogged into a roadside ditch, hefting a probe as an EF-4 tornado bore down on him. Moments later, the tornado struck the instrument. Samaras watched from a safe remove as houses were blown apart like piles of leaves. The tornado that razed Manchester registered the steepest drop in barometric pressure on record, and it was captured by Samaras's turtle.

The finding catapulted him to fame, and Samaras seized the opportunity to advance his work. The National Geographic Society wanted to underwrite his research. He partnered with the University of Iowa's famed tornado laboratory. Boeing paid him to field-test hail-resistant skin for its aircraft. He found a chase partner in Carl Young, a bit-part Hollywood actor turned atmospheric-science student who was quickly becoming a promising forecaster. He began collaborating with Bruce Lee and Cathy Finley, University of Northern Colorado researchers who studied the forces at work outside of tornadoes. TWISTEX was born.

The group authored peer-reviewed papers for Monthly Weather Review and the American Meteorological Society. They could lay claim to nearly every measurement taken from within a tornado. This was partially because Samaras was a brilliant engineer, but also because no one could read a storm quite like he could. Young excelled at choosing the right storm systems using Doppler radar, but once they sat beneath the mesocyclone, Samaras's ability to spot the signs led them to the tornado.

Samaras was an aggressive, dogged chaser who often had to be reminded by his colleagues to stop and eat. But he was also beloved. To his children, he was the father who set up a tripod camera in front of the Christmas tree because they had demanded evidence of Santa's existence. Something "unexplained" usually happened as it filmed. He once dressed his son Paul as a ham radio for Halloween. Among Samaras's achievements, he was the first male Girl Scout troop leader in Colorado.

To his chasing friends, he was the guy who had them out to his home in Bennett for war stories and copious bowls of his "bunghole-burnin' green chile." He was the vaguely superstitious, empirical scientist who left a McDonald's cheeseburger on his dash every season as a sort of tornado-locating talisman. "They were probably as hard as hockey pucks by the end of the season," says TWISTEX team member Ed Grubb.

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Can't we use airborne (or non-airborne for that matter) drones to investigate tornadoes now?  They're faster, inexpensive-ish, flexible, can be designed to be disposable, and can reach any altitude along the tornado and fly right into it.  Although they may enjoy it, it seems such a waste to put people with so much knowledge in harm's way.

Chriss Hoffman
Chriss Hoffman

R.I.P. Tim and Paul, that was such a sad day. Good article on an amazing and selfless researcher who died doing what he loved, trying to learn how to predict storms and save lives a real tragedy and loss for all of us that call Tornado Alley home.


@hal0 This has actually been suggested and tested but there's a few problems with it. Because they are aircraft, the FAA has been deterring progress with it because they are worried about it causing issues with other aircraft and they will only approve of the flight of drones by people that have undergone proper pilot training and even then, they have to communicate to the FAA as a pilot while flying it. In an area with little or no cell signal it can be extremely difficult to communicate with anyone other than with CB radios. 

The other issue with drones is transportation. In order to get close enough to the tornado to get any kind of useful information, it would have to be a larger drone that is capable of dealing with 100+ mph inflow winds (not the tornado) as well as the outer circulation of the tornado itself. It would be very difficult to transport an aircraft like that that is deployable at a moments notice. Bringing a trailer is a bad idea as a lot of the time during a chase, you're on a back-country dirt road that is only big enough for a passenger vehicle to turn around (which happens frequently). 

It's a good idea but the implementation of it could take a lot of effort and the FAA isn't the easiest agency to work with.

-source; Researcher at NCAR, Meteorologist, Storm Chaser, I was also at the El Reno tornado and almost met a similar fate to TWISTEX. On a side note, a lot of my friends and colleagues knew Tim and Paul and were devastated by what happened. They were as careful as possible but this storm was not like others.

Let me know if you want to know more. I enjoy sharing information about these topics.