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The Thunderstorm Project: When Pilots Flew Into Thunderstorms ... Intentionally

The Thunderstorm Project: When Pilots Flew Into Thunderstorms ... Intentionally

By Emily Senesac (emily.senesac@noaa.gov)

Editor’s Note: The information found here first appeared in “The Thunderstorm Project in Ohio - 1947” at https://www.weather.gov/iln/thunderstormproject. 

Looking back at the early 1900s, there was very little known about the natural phenomena of the thunderstorm. Before technologies like Doppler radar, weather satellites, radios, and computerized data entry came into the picture, it was unprecedented to collect extensive, detailed information about an impending storm. However, as the aviation industry experienced a massive boom as a result of World War II, thunderstorm-related aircraft incidents began to increase in frequency and severity. In order to prevent further damage and loss of life as a result of this weather hazard, it became imperative to learn as much as possible about thunderstorms. 

In 1945, Congress mandated and funded a first-of-its-kind, in-depth, multi-agency meteorological study to investigate the nature and causes of thunderstorms, aptly named the Thunderstorm Project. In addition to the Weather Bureau, the Navy, the Army Air Force, and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the forerunner to today’s NASA) played a role in this cooperative effort. Due to the meteorological nature of the inquiry, the Weather Bureau was assigned primary responsibility, and Dr. Horace R. Byers of the University of Chicago was appointed Director of the Thunderstorm Project in late 1945. 

The goal of the project was explained by Dr. Roscoe Braham Jr., senior analyst of the Thunderstorm Project, some decades later: “...to obtain the maximum number of traverses through each storm and to sample storms in all stages of development.” On a harrowing note, he made the hazardous nature of this undertaking incredibly clear: “No storm was to be avoided because it appeared too large or too violent.” Although this investigation was dangerous, it was evident to all that the outcome would be worth the risk.

As World War II came to a close, considerable aviation equipment and countless trained personnel became available for this crucial research effort. The first phase of the Thunderstorm Project took place in Orlando, Florida over the course of the summer of 1946, as it was determined that thunderstorms occurred more frequently there than in any other part of North America. After Orlando, the second phase of the project moved to Wilmington, Ohio, a location chosen for its large military airbase, flat terrain, and thunderstorm frequency along fronts. 

As part of the study, trained pilots made numerous and nearly simultaneous flights through thunderstorms to collect as much data as possible about the conditions within. These skilled aviators flew in a vertical stack formation that consisted of five radar-equipped airplanes, each flying 5,000 feet higher than the one directly below it and the highest flying at an altitude of 25,000 feet. Additionally, a dense surface network of dozens of observing stations across the state continuously monitored and recorded the surrounding environment. This information was then processed for analysis by the Weather Bureau, and was supplemented by further radar, radiosonde, and wind-station data. With all of this newfound knowledge, thunderstorms could finally be detected and monitored.

Although our modern understanding of thunderstorms has come a long way since the Thunderstorm Project, this research effort remains highly significant in many ways. This undertaking remains the nation’s first large-scale study of thunderstorms, as well as the first multi-agency meteorological project to be mandated and funded by Congress. Perhaps even more significantly, the Thunderstorm Project was the first weather research study in which radar/airplanes had a central role, proving that radar could be used to detect the most dangerous parts of storms and help airplanes avoid them. Furthermore, the density and thoroughness of observations used over the course of this massive investigation had never been attempted before, and set the scientific standard for future projects. Most importantly, the theories and findings of the Thunderstorm Project, including the three stages in the life cycle of a thunderstorm, became the cornerstone of today’s understanding of thunderstorms and related weather phenomena.