Sean Casey of The Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers” series is one of the featured researchers in the IMAX movie “Tornado Alley,” now showing on The Maritime Aquarium’s six-story screen. (He also directed it.) Below is an excerpt of an interview with him, regarding a specially made vehicle called the Tornado Intercept Vehicle (TIV) featured in the film.
The TIV started its life as a 1997 Ford F-450 pickup truck, but was stripped down so thoroughly that only its engine, transmission and driveline remained. Its body was replaced with an armored steel shell. Four hydraulic claws were added to the vehicles sides that drop and clamp to the ground during a tornado “intercept.” Other additions included bullet-resistant windows, a 7.3-liter turbo-diesel engine and a 60-gallon fuel tank.
Weighing in at 15,000 pounds, the TIV has a top speed of 80 mph – not bad, but still a little sluggish if you’re being chased by an EF5 tornado.
In 2008, Casey introduced TIV 2, in part so it could serve as the star vehicle in “Tornado Alley,” but also to improve upon a few of TIV 1’s weaker aspects, including the top speed. After a few alterations to reduce its initial nearly 9-ton weight, TIV 2 emerged as the intrepid tornado tracker featured in the movie.
Q: You had come up with the idea for the TIV when you were locked out of a minivan in a storm, correct?
Sean Casey: Well, actually, we had come up with the concept the year before, but getting locked out of a minivan with a tornado right next to us, that kind of confirms my sneaking suspicion that if we were going to be that close we should have something a bit more rugged.
Q: Were there any other inspirations for the TIV?
SEAN: Mainly it was just a feeling that, you know, there’s a huge difference between filming a tornado from a couple miles away with a telephoto lens, and filming a tornado that’s on top of you with a wide-angle lens. And that’s really where all the action is. It’s right next to the tornado. And it’s close in the tornado. That’s the kind of power that I wanted to capture. I wanted to get footage that really was as powerful as the subject matter.
Q: How did it feel during the intercept with a tornado?
SEAN: Of course it’s hard to describe. In the moment, a part of you is fearing for your life. A part of you is just overjoyed and kind of in shock. I think I was in shock at the time, really. It was such an unbelievable experience. Unbelievable to see a tornado forming half a mile away. You pick the right spot, and it’s just coming right at you, and to bear witness to that.
And another thing is I’m trying not to mess up. You don’t want to mess up that opportunity. So I’m really focused on capturing it with the IMAX camera. And so for me not to lose my mind I’m focusing on the job at hand. And, of course, it was kind of a scary moment, too, because the turret on our vehicle, which we film out of, was jumping up and down. The turret had come off the vehicle about a month earlier, just from driving into strong headwinds, it had kind of come off the vehicle and bounced off our mast. All of sudden with the wind, it started jumping up and down. I thought, in the back of my mind, it was, we finally got the shot, but all of a sudden the turret and the camera were going to be sucked out of the vehicle.
But in the moment the thing that actually happened, you know, I was actually bracing myself, my feet up against the ceiling of the TIV, wedging myself in there and gripping onto the turret with everything I had so that it wouldn’t leave the vehicle. And it probably wouldn’t have, but at that moment I felt that there was a danger.
“Tornado Alley” plays at 2 p.m. daily through Sunday. Starting Monday, when The Maritime Aquarium goes to its summer hours, “Tornado Alley” will show at 2 & 5 p.m. daily through Aug. 31.