The Lookout

‘We aren’t daredevils’: Oklahoma’s storm chasers in the sky

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KWTV's Jim Gardner in his helicopter (from Facebook)

MOORE, Okla.—As a helicopter pilot for KCAL-TV in Los Angeles, Jim Gardner had flown over deadly mudslides and earthquakes, covered car chases and was shot at by snipers during the L.A. riots. Yet Gardner was perhaps best known for giving the world its first glimpse of O.J. Simpson’s infamous white Bronco leading police on a low-speed chase through West L.A. in 1994—coverage that earned him his first of several Emmys.

As a helicopter pilot in the National Guard, Jon Welsh had flown in Iraq and worked as a U.S. Army flight instructor, teaching soldiers how to fly in combat.

Both men are now part of a new frontier in the battle for viewers among local TV stations here: Flying news helicopters as close as possible to storms for at-home front-row seats to tornadoes as they swirl to life.

While stations in other TV markets brag about illustrious new radars with technology that can pinpoint the exact block where a cloud is spitting rain, the weather wars in Oklahoma are a different beast. Virtually every resident in the state is an amateur meteorologist because of the propensity for storms here, and Oklahomans seem to demand more of its storm reporters. If Gardner and Welsh are any indication, they get it.

Both Oklahoma natives now living in their home state, each flew one of the two news helicopters on Monday as one of the most dangerous tornadoes in the nation’s history carved a deadly path through several neighborhoods in Moore, killing 24 and injuring more than 300.

For Welsh, who works for KFOR-TV, Monday was particularly emotional: He lives in Moore, and his wife and kids were at home, right in the path of the oncoming tornado. As he tracked the storm and gave on-air reports, he repeatedly texted his wife, making sure that she and the kids were taking cover. (They were safely in the storm cellar.) For several agonizing minutes, as he watched the tornado mow down subdivisions west of his home, he waited to hear if his family was OK—all the while trying to make sure he remained composed on the air.

[Related: How to help victims of the Oklahoma tornado]

“I just tried to distance myself, report what I saw,” said Welsh. “Something just kicked in. I guess it was military training.”

Gardner, 56, is the veteran storm chaser and one of the first TV news pilots in the country to steer his helicopter close to the eye of a storm—though, as he’s careful to note, the camera zoom makes him appear closer to the drama than he actually is (he is usually about a mile from the actual center).

“After the riots, the floods, the fires, the O.J. Simpson chase and everything else, I was like, ‘Man, I want to go back home where it’s a little quieter,’” Gardner, who works for CBS-affiliate KWTV, recalled in an interview with Yahoo News. He paused and let out a deep, hearty laugh. “Yeah, that didn’t happen."

Gardner first worked for KFOR, the local NBC affiliate, before defecting to rival KWTV last year. When he returned to Oklahoma in 1996, he had never even seen a tornado—despite growing up here. When asked by his new bosses if he would fly close to storms for live coverage, Gardner—whose pre-TV news gigs in L.A. included piloting celebrities like Brooke Shields and horror film guru John Carpenter around—shrugged it off.

“They said, ‘Hey, you have a problem with weather? With tornadoes?’” Gardner recalled. “I said, ‘Well, they don’t shoot at you like they do in L.A.’ It sounded like a piece of cake to me.”

Gardner gradually flew closer and closer to storms as he tracked them across Oklahoma—coordinating with the station’s meteorologists about the best places to see the developing storm—and the best positions to stay out of harm's way.

There are no textbooks for what he and Welsh do. It’s a matter of trial and error—based on their judgments as pilots and also as video journalists who are not only there to capture the best images for viewers but also to tell people at home in a coherent way what is happening.

If using a cellphone while driving is a distraction, imagine flying a helicopter on the outskirts of a violent storm, looking at camera footage and talking on live television about what you’re seeing all at the same time.

“The military was perfect training for this,” said Welsh, 31. “The way you have to be aware of your surroundings and careful of danger. … But you also have to be calm and focused even in the middle of chaos or you are not effectively doing your job for the people at home.”

He added, “It’s definitely an on-the-job learning experience, a lot of trial and error. As a pilot, you have to know how a storm is structured, where to go and where not to go. … But at first you don’t know, OK, you need to be here to get the best light behind the tornado so it will show up on camera, or [this is] how to avoid getting caught up [in] the wind or hail. … But, believe me, you learn pretty quickly. With every storm you get more confident.”

In the early days, Gardner viewed his job the way most reporters do: He was there to break news before his competition. “It was about ratings and getting there first and getting the tornado,” he said.

But that changed on May 3, 1999, when a massive F5 twister developed southwest of Moore and stayed on the ground for nearly 90 minutes as it tracked to the northeast, obliterating everything in its path.

Gardner stayed with the monster storm for its duration, watching in horror as it chewed up entire neighborhoods. His footage was not only beamed to viewers in the Oklahoma City area, it was also picked up nationally by outlets including CNN—which went live with his terrifying shot of the deadly black cloud consuming entire blocks and Gardner’s voice calmly warning people in the path of the storm to take cover.

That storm ultimately killed 44 people and injured several hundred—but state officials said the death toll would have been worse had there not been warnings from Gardner and other local TV reporters.

“Looking at all the damage, I thought thousands of people were dead, just gone,” Gardner recalled. “It killed 44 people, and that’s still too many, but I realized if we hadn’t been out there doing what we do, there’s no telling how many more people would have been lost.”

For Gardner, Monday’s tornado was a horrifying case of déjà vu—especially as the storm took largely the same trajectory as the ’99 twister. Both he and Welsh steadied their copters about a mile away to the southeast and aimed northwest, watching as the ominous cloud grew larger and larger.

“It looked like the same tornado to me, one of those storms where there’s just no way to survive if you are above ground,” Gardner said. “You try to stay calm on air, but it’s hard because you just become so emotional thinking about all those people on the ground.”

Welsh, while dealing with his fears for his own family, circled his helicopter back to check on the neighborhoods that had already been hit and became choked up again as he saw kids running from the ruins of what had been the Plaza Elementary School.

“They were all covered in dirt and mud, and the place looks like a war zone,” Welsh said, speaking of a scene that, as someone who flew combat missions over Baghdad, he actually knows something about. “You try to be as professional as you can, but at the end of the day, you’re still human.”

It’s a feeling Gardner knows all too well. Two years ago, he was covering a tornado just outside Goldsby in south central Oklahoma when he saw a family struggling to climb out of the debris. Gardner views part of his job as being something of an aerial first responder, alerting local police and other officials to the people most in need of help.

But what he didn’t realize as he turned his copter around was that while the tornado had dissipated, its circulation was still there. For a moment, his helicopter was caught in the wind and nearly plummeted to the ground, but he somehow recovered. It’s the closest he’s ever come to crashing.

“I think about that moment a lot,” Gardner said. “But it’s hard for me to see people struggling, especially kids. It’s the hardest part of the job. You want to do something to help them, but in the air, you are somehow removed in a way.”

Both Welsh and Gardner admit that people have told them they are crazy to take the risks they do to cover storms. But both men say it’s worth it because they view it as a public service.

“People come up to me and say, 'Oh, you’re crazy.’ I’ve been called it all, but when you see devastation like what happened Monday and you realize that thousands of people could have been killed, you realize that what you are doing is helping people,” Gardner said. “We aren’t daredevils. What we are doing is offering a helpful tool to the people of Oklahoma.”

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