Valley Center pair is part of Discovery's 'Storm Chasers' team

Editor’s note: Matt Hughes died May 26, 2010. A memorial has been established on behalf of his two sons. Donations can be made to the Matthew John Hughes Memorial Fund, c/o Intrust Bank, 142 North Ash, Valley Center, Kansas 67147

Opportunity can knock at the most unexpected times.

Just ask Brandon Ivey and Matt Hughes.

They were driving through a blizzard in Pratt County last March when fellow storm chaser Reed Timmer called them on the cell phone.

"Hey, I've got an opportunity for you," Timmer said.

The Discovery Channel program "Storm Chasers" needed someone who could forecast weather and help position other chasers during violent weather outbreaks for the new season of the cable show. Timmer had recommended the two friends from Valley Center.

"It was like a dream come true," Ivey said. "We started chasing (storms) practically from the moment we got our driver's licenses."

Footage from two months of chasing this spring will be the basis for the new season of "Storm Chasers," which debuts at 9 p.m. CDT Oct. 18 on the Discovery Channel.

They chased storms from mid-April to mid-June — a period that proved to be one of the quietest on record for Tornado Alley.

"It was like (finding) a needle in a haystack," Hughes said. "It was an extremely difficult season.

"We chased raindrops for three weeks straight."

Ivey, 29, and Hughes, 30, say their fascination with severe storms was born on the same day: April 26, 1991, when a tornado tore through Haysville, south Wichita, McConnell Air Force Base and Andover.

They were boys then, but they were still awed by the power of the storm.

Ivey grew up and earned a degree in geosciences from Mississippi State University and certification in broadcast meteorology. He was chasing storms at 16 and began documenting them for research in 2001.

Hughes has chased storms for 15 years, and estimates he has seen perhaps 100 tornadoes in that time.

Those backgrounds helped land Ivey and Hughes the "Storm Chasers" gig, but they still had to earn the trust of colleagues on the program.

Others participating included Timmer and his heavily reinforced storm research vehicle equipped with radar and camera equipment, designed to get as close to tornadoes as possible; and a "tornado intercept vehicle," or TIV, which Sean Casey intended to drive into a tornado while shooting video for an IMAX film.

"There was a little bit of friction," Hughes conceded. "They didn't know who we were, they didn't know what to expect from us. There were some frustrations.

"As the season went along, you could see us come together. By the end of the season we're like a well-oiled machine. We knew what each other was thinking almost before we had to say it."

The responsibility of providing forecasts and positioning film crews so they could capture sequences on video while remaining safe added pressure, Hughes said.

"There was a lot of pressure to perform, and making the right call" as to when and how to chase a storm, he said. "We really had to be on our toes from a forecasting standpoint."

The teams spent time tagging along with Vortex2, a two-year, government-funded study of tornadoes.

The chase period culminated June 5 with the touchdown of a large tornado in Wyoming — which researchers now call the most completely documented tornado in history, from storm genesis to tornado development to dissipation.

The tornado touched down about 50 miles northeast of Cheyenne in remote eastern Wyoming. It had a 10-mile track and was on the ground for nearly half an hour. There were no reports of damage.

Ivey and Hughes got within 50 yards of the wedge-shaped twister.

"That was pretty intense," Ivey said.

Prevailing wisdom dictates that the safest place to view a tornado is usually from the southwest — which is typically behind the tornado, safe and clear of any rain cloaks that may obscure the view of the tornado as it moves northeast.

But Ivey and Hughes like to position themselves northeast of a tornado so "you can watch it coming toward you," Ivey said.

It can also provide a longer viewing, he said, provided it is not shrouded in rain. Of course, at some point, that positioning usually means they have to move — or risk being hit.

A rain-wrapped tornado shifted its track on April 29 and bore down on the "Storm Chasers" crews and numerous other chasers crowding a dirt road in Texas. There were so many vehicles and so little room to maneuver that they were sitting ducks.

But the tornado lifted before it reached the road, and the chasers were spared.

"It could have been a really bad situation," Hughes said.

This season of "Storm Chasers" will run a minimum of eight weekly episodes, Hughes said, though there could be a couple of more added .

They likely won't know until the end of the season whether the series will be renewed for another year.

"We're being told this will be the best season yet," Hughes said.

They hope they'll get to chase for the show again next spring, even though it would mean being away from their families for weeks.

"That was hard," Ivey said.

Ivey quit his job with Spirit AeroSystems so he could be on the show this spring and is trying to develop a video business.

Hughes was laid off from Cessna in March and is working on a psychology degree at Friends University.

But there's no doubting where their true passion lies.

They are still in awe about being a part of the tornado chase on June 5, with the Vortex2 project members alongside.

"To be part of something that big was just awesome," Hughes said. "You dream about something like this."

Related stories from Wichita Eagle