Phil Berg, The Tornado Chaser Among Us

May 25, 2011

Car writers who don't use exclamation points as a crutch will do dumb stuff to get out of the office. If I said a certain HGM editor once rode the hood of an Oldsmobile through a wall of fire--twice--for a feature story, would you believe me him?

Broken thumbs would have been the worst of that stunt going wrong, but veteran automotive journalist Phil Berg's put himself far closer to peril--as a tornado chaser.

With this year's devastating outbreak of twisters, we wanted to know how you do it, immediately after we wanted to know why. Above all, what's the right car to drive when you can actually plan ahead of time to intersect a tornado--instead of being overtaken by one?

Here's what Phil says:

"I love relevant road tests. A year before the Bill Paxton/Helen Hunt movie Twister, I did a story for Car and Driver about riding with tornado chasers in a GMC Typhoon SUV. I've always been bored writing road tests about cars when the only purpose for the test is either driving to lunch or making endless loops past shooters. Searching for relevant tests has led me to chase hot air balloonists, bicycle racers, adventure racers, trains, planes and rallyists.

"But the best test of an SUV I think is tornado chasing. Back when I started in 1995, GPS was mostly for boats, there was no internet, and we carefully cataloged small town motels by whether or not they had cable TV with The Weather Channel. We would crowd around National Weather Service offices to get information about what storms might appear that day. We would also use an acoustic coupler to download pilot's weather maps by fax from pay phones in the Oklahoma panhandle.

"More than a dozen tornado seasons later, I use a HUMMER H3T with Level 3 data maps from the NWS that updates almost live, and we gather wind speed, temperatures and relative humidity readings from sensors on the truck as well as from heavy instrumented recording pods that we deposit in paths of tornados. We constantly transmit GPS data to other chasers, so we all know where we are at any moment.

"We did outrun a nighttime tornado in Nebraska in 2009 in the HUMMER, driving 75 mph with bright LED lights on I-80 eastbound, being pummeled by quarter-sized and larger hail, while I was holding the HUMMER's steering wheel at 90 degrees just to keep the truck on the highway, scaring the voices out of two British science journalists that were riding in the rear seats, straining their eyes out the windows looking for signs of a twister.

"Now that was a real road test," he deadpans.

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