Storm Chasing from the Air

By Phil Bates, Artbeats President & Founder

Weather is an important subject for Artbeats, especially storms and severe weather, which are popular subjects with our customers. We’re always looking for innovative ways to capture the drama of large supercells, and even a tornado if we can find one. Our latest effort is a relatively new idea we call Aerial Chasing. Storm chasing is typically done in a vehicle firmly planted on the ground in relative safety, but has limitations such as bad roads and obstacles like trees, hills and buildings that make capturing good images so challenging. Taking the concept of chasing storms up into the air where those limitations don’t exist has rarely been done (and never with a high end film camera) and is a dream for storm chasers, yet poses its own set of challenges and risks. Dangerous hail, wind shear and extreme turbulence all require serious consideration. The FAA recommends that small planes stay 20 miles away from thunderstorms, and flying into a storm can easily destroy a plane in minutes (imagine no visibility, vertical winds and tennis ball sized hail), so we approached this idea with extreme caution.

The GPS display shows our position relative to the storm.

Last December, storm chaser and weather expert, Skip Talbot approached me with an idea to aerial-chase storms this May, the height of tornado season. His pilot, Caleb Elliott, is an extremely experienced commercial pilot, flight instructor and storm chaser.  As the time approached, we worked up a plan to meet in Kansas City, setting aside five days for chasing with a rented Cessna 182 to fly close to and film tornado-warned supercellular thunderstorms.

Caleb Elliott, Phil Bates and Skip Talbot in front of the Cessna 182.

Caleb Elliot preparing the flight plan.

Skip Talbot using radar to forecast in real time (now-casting).

My biggest concern was not the safety issues, but how to shoot stable images from a small plane in the turbulence near a storm. Acquiring a gyrostabilized system was not an option in this case, so after taking several test flights and trying various hand-held and mounting configurations, I settled on using a monopod wedged between the seat and the door, with foam rubber cushioning all of the contact points. The RED Epic camera was small and light enough for this setup. Our tests showed that a CANON 24-105 Image Stabilized lens gave the best focal range for this application. I knew that rolling shutter and vibration could still be a problem so I shot 5K format at 96fps, then stabilized in post using After Effects, with the extra frames to blend/hide the vibrations. Not a perfect solution, but good enough for this shoot which we considered a big experiment.

Flying towards typical storms in clear air, the plane would bounce with turbulence from thermals coming off the sun-heated fields beneath us. Fortunately, the anvil of a thunderstorm casts a large shadow, especially when you are on the east side of the storm in late afternoon. The shadow cooled the ground and gave us steady air with no thermals.  This is not to say that there was no wind; the updraft of a supercell thunderstorm creates a hefty 60mph wind that was constantly pulling us toward the storm’s core. Fortunately, our plane could fly twice that fast, so anytime we wanted, we could escape fairly easily.  We found that if we stayed under the anvil within 2-5 miles southeast of the storm’s core, the air remained steady and was free of rain and the destructive hail we were trying to avoid.  Skip was in the back seat monitoring the storm with radar and feeding the pilot with distances to hail cores and updrafts. If we found turbulent wind shear, we simply turned back to the smoother air we had just come from. This method kept us safe, yet we were close enough to see the violent storm structure looming close and large out our windows.

Despite the relatively smooth air, shooting the storm through an open window of a Cessna was a fairly chaotic experience. The lens protruded outside into the 100mph wind, which was so strong it was constantly trying to twist the focal length ring on the lens. I had to use gaff tape to hold it and the focus ring in place, but even then, the tape would buckle under the extreme forces. The vibrations would loosen the quick-release plate which required me to pull the camera off and tighten every minute or so. In order to keep the strut and wing out of the shot, I had the pilot carefully position the direction of the plane and lift the wing.

During the five days, we chased three different tornado-warned supercells in North Dakota and Kansas, and got some amazing footage. Although we didn’t get the coveted tornado shot, we did shoot some interesting structures including this mile-wide rotating dust storm:

We had to abandon the above storm for fuel after two hours of shooting. Wouldn’t you know, the storm produced a tornado 15 minutes after we left!

All in all it was an exciting, fun, albeit tumultuous shoot. In the months to come Artbeats will be producing a selection of this footage and making it available on our website.