Casey vs. the Tornado
Storm chaser builds an armored Ford F-450 to drive into tornados
Published Date: 7/18/05
Earlier this year near Paducah, Texas, cinematographer Sean Casey got the scary part of his wish. “The holy grail of all footage is to get a tornado coming right at you—filming with a wide-angle lens, and having the tornado hit you, impact the camera—and that shot really hasn’t been gotten yet,” says the seven-year storm-chasing veteran. “If we can get that on IMAX, it would be a really nice, nice shot.”
Because of heavy rain, his bulky IMAX camera didn’t get the shot. Casey was hit by a tornado twice that day, events he recalls with a calm, articulate tone belying that average folks think the feat is totally, completely, insanely nuts.
“The first was like being sandblasted by 70- to 80-mph winds. The last tornado was rain-wrapped. You couldn’t see the tornado. We just drove right into it,” recalls Casey. “The wind reading was 55 meters per second, so maybe 110 mph.”
Until three years ago Casey would never have tried driving into a tornado. “One year we had a pickup and we had the camera on a helicopter mount in the back. We were trying to get to the mode where you can film at any time. It was always a hard deal to jump out of a car, set up your sticks [tripod], set up the camera and then get your shot. But we were still exposed in the back of the pickup. Going down the highway at 80 mph, if something happens you’re dead.
“We had a close call in 2001 in a minivan where we actually locked ourselves out of the minivan,” he says. “We were really close to these tornados. It was just after that we thought, ‘Let’s build a vehicle that can take some abuse.’ A vehicle where if you get hit by a tornado, even a violent one, you’re probably going to be okay.”
So he built the TIV (Tornado Intercept Vehicle), a long-wheelbase 1997 Ford F-450 diesel dually pickup. No one at Ford would recognize it, though. The body has been replaced by inexpertly welded thick steel plates, and incorporates a roof turret housing the large IMAX film camera. Occupants peer out through prison-window Lexan portals.
“It’s so ugly! It’s just a big mobile tripod for the camera,” Casey says.
Getting a real tornado to hit you while you’re filming is a difficult, time-consuming job. Casey has collected about 15 minutes’ worth of IMAX footage in seven years, much of it while latched under the turret of the TIV. He has been driving the truck for three chase seasons, which usually run from late April to early June in Tornado Alley, a region of the high plains that sees more tornados than anywhere in the world. Casey, 37, spends about six weeks a year hunkered down in central Kansas watching live radar images via the web from the National Weather Service’s storm prediction center, same as hundreds of storm-chase hobbyists and scientists.
Casey learned to weld in order to build the TIV. “You can see the original beads weren’t so great,” he says. “I’m a cinematographer, with a limited ability in welding.”
He kept the truck’s instrument panel, but everything else is created for his storm-chasing purposes. On top of a quarter-inch steel plate welded to the original frame rails of the truck, he constructed a frame of six-inch steel channel, and then welded one-eighth-inch steel plates onto the frame for the body. The turret revolves 360 degrees on three-inch steel rollers, and a platform underneath it holds the heavy IMAX camera. Two more hatches in the top of the TIV are used by a cameraman for smaller format film. The doors, one on the front passenger side, one on the rear driver side and two in back, are double-layer, one-eighth-inch steel plate. The TIV weighs 13,780 pounds.
Casey came up with the design himself. “It looks remarkably similar to the spaceships I drew when I was 12,” he says. “In a way, I might be reliving that.”
Okay, so it's not our Sean Casey, but still interesting