Just outside of a big hangar at Salina Regional Airport, folks in blue jumpsuits stood watch on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Lockheed WP-3 Orion, a large plane loaded with radars and other weather gear.
This was the calm that some 50 scientists, weather experts and students are not here to experience during the early stages of a two-year operation known as Project TORUS. The acronym stands for Targeted Observations by Radars and UAS of Supercells.
The TORUS goal from now through June 16, is to simply learn more, said Adam Houston, lead project investigator from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
"We hope to improve weather forecasting and improve our fundamental understanding (of storms)," he said.
Relating the "observable" with the "unobservable" with cutting-edge instrumentation, Houston said, TORUS aims to research the relationships between severe thunderstorms and tornado formation, according to information provided at the Tuesday legislative briefing, media day and open house.
"To do that, we really do need to get close to the storms," Houston said.
Using the WP-3 from high elevations, gathering information from ground level, and for the first time utilizing drones at elevations below 2,500 feet, team members can attack supercells from more angles.
"We can drive up to the storm, and into the storm if necessary," Houston said, "to get unique observations, but also coordinated observations to see how these relate to each other."
The operation will continue in 2020.
What the average person knows about these immense, dangerous, and sometimes deadly storms, might be thanks only to Hollywood, according to some during opening remarks.
Anthony Bruna, assistant legal counsel for U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, admitted his education came from the 1996 film, "Twister."
"You guys are the real deal," Bruna said to the Project TORUS crew after Tim Rogers, executive director of the Salina Airport Authority, spoke during the legislative briefing.
"Right now, we think of you as a bunch of crazy people who fly into storms, releasing sensors that resemble beer cans," said Perry Wiggins, executive director of the Governor's Military Council.
But he assured spectators that those associated with Project TORUS are dedicated professionals.
"I walked around and talked to to them. They have enough information to make your head explode," Wiggins said. "It's reassuring to know that we've got people like that on point to protect us, giving us time to basically get out of the elements."
He resides in Chapman, in a house that was damaged by the 2008 tornado that ravaged the small eastern Dickinson county town, killing one and injuring many.
Wiggins wonders why people chase tornadoes.
"They wouldn't drive toward gunfire, and sometimes these things are more dangerous than that," he said.
Love of the weather excites Justin Kibbey, commander of the WP-3. His focus is completing missions.
"My main priority is us, to keep the plane safe and get the information to the scientists," he said. "There's a lot of expertise here, a lot of knowledge."
Project TORUS "is going to be fabulous," said Lisa Teachman KSN TV's chief meteorologist in Wichita. She broadcast the weather forecast Tuesday at 5 and 6 p.m. from the airport.
Currently, she said, the lead time for an approaching tornado or severe storm is 13 to 14 minutes, and three out of four severe storms are not going to produce a tornado. Teachman aims to glean information from researchers that would add time and accuracy.
"This is like one of the real amazing scientific projects going on," said Mark Robinson. He and Jaclyn Whittal, both storm chasers,
co-host a television show, "Storm Hunters" on The Weather Network, out of Toronto in southern Ontario, Canada.
They filmed interviews Tuesday, and plan on spending two weeks in Salina.
"What I want to learn is why one storm produces a tornado, and the other doesn't," Robinson said.
Displays in and out of the hangar Tuesday fascinated David Kraemer, professor of mathematics and computer studies at Kansas Wesleyan University, considering all of the coordination between government resources and universities.
UNL, the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies at the University of Oklahoma, NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., Texas Tech and Colorado University in Boulder, are involved. A small group of students from University of Michigan are on the Texas Tech team.
|Mom's and kids marvel at stickers on the WP-3 aircraft Tuesday during the Project TORUS open house at Salina Regional Airport. The flag stickers show where the airplane has visited and red stickers commemorate weather events where research was done.
"To make it all work right is quite amazing. It's a really good experience for these young kids," Kraemer said. "All of these vehicles taking so many measurements together is really wild. I don't covet anybody's job on that plane."
It's what James McFadden lives for. He has flown in and out of hurricanes 578 times in his long career, and owns the Guinness World Record for being the oldest to fly through one.
"I love to fly and I love meteorology," said McFadden, 85. "It's why I got a PhD in meteorology. My peers were stuck in the lab. I get to see everything unfold right in front of me."
The big plane is also known as a NOAA WP-3 Hurricane Hunter, that will chase storms in the nation's belly.
It will work in concert with drones at lower elevations and vehicles collecting data from ground level.
This is the first time that unmanned aerial vehicles will be used for the research.
"It's a cheaper solution and you don't have to risk people's lives by sending them int
o the storm," said Anders Olsen, a sophomore at the University of Colorado.
He enjoys to be "part of such an awesome group," while still in college.
Drones will normally perform one flight for each storm, said Eric Frew, professor of aerospace engineering science at CU-Boulder.
He's not yet concerned that wind gusts would cause problems for the unmanned aircraft.
"We've been in high winds before, and have not seen this happen," Frew said.
The project will cover 367,000 square miles from North Dakota to Texas and Iowa to Wyoming and Colorado.
Monica and Avery Hoy thoroughly enjoyed their Tuesday tour. They were part of a group of home-schooled students from Hutchinson.
"The airplane is very neat, with all the hurricanes it's flown through, and the equipment inside" said Monica, 11, who is considering a career in meteorology.
"It's definitely a strong option," she said. "Storms are very interesting and exciting."
Avery, 9, was partial to the ground vehicles inside the hangar.
"I kinda like that weather vein over there," he said. "It has a big camera on the front."