Tornado chasers show off vehicle at Cosmosphere

HUTCHINSON — Seeing a Chevy Camaro pull out of the parking lot of the Kansas Cosmosphere, Sean Casey said that ideally he'd take a low-to-the-ground car like that and turn it into a tornado interceptor. But, he said a bit ruefully, there'd be no place to put all the equipment, including the quarter-million-dollar IMAS camera he takes while chasing tornadoes all over the country for the Discovery Channel.

So what he ends up with instead is the TIV2 (Tornado Intercept Vehicle 2), a Dodge Ram 3500 pickup truck stripped down to its chassis and built back up with 9,000 pounds of armor plating.

Casey and Brandon Ivey, his on-board meteorologist and navigator, brought the TIV2 to the Cosmosphere Friday and Saturday, where they told tornado stories, signed autographs and posed for pictures with dozens of wannabe storm chasers.

The behemoth TIV2 carries up to four people — a driver and navigator in the front seats, a camera operator from the Discovery Channel in a back seat, and Casey, who operates the IMAS camera in a top turret that can rotate 360 degrees.

It cost about $120,000 to convert the Dodge 3500 into the TIV2. All that's left of the original vehicle is the chassis, engine, steering wheel and instrument panel. It looks like some sort of military armored personnel carrier or something a big-city SWAT team would drive. And it is.

To protect the occupants from tornadoes and debris, it has armored walls. There's a quarter-inch of steel, a quarter-inch of Kevlar, a cross hatch of one-inch steel beams, then another quarter-inch of Kevlar and another quarter-inch of steel. The polycarbonate windows consist of two quarter-inch-thick panes on the sides and single inch-and-half-thick panes for the front and rear windows.

Ivey said the TIV2 has been inside six tornadoes.

"You just try to keep from panicking," Casey said of what it is like when a tornado passes over. "You have all that excitement and adrenaline building up. You're trying to keep your mind clear and focusing on assessing and getting the best shot possible. When you get hit by the tornado, the winds are howling and the vehicle is vibrating and the turret is kind of hopping up and down and the people inside are screaming colorful things."

Ivey said it's usually only a few seconds, though it may seem longer.

"A lot of the tornadoes we're out chasing are the width of a football field, maybe a couple football fields," Ivey said. "You occasionally get your large wedge tornadoes that can be half a mile or a mile wide. But a lot of the tornadoes we're chasing are fairly narrow and they're moving about 30-40 mph, so what seems like an extended time in the vehicle is really just a brief, maybe five-, 10-second impact. But it gets pretty chaotic."