OEM Report: Automotive

Into the storm

By Meghan Boyer

Fabricated by hand, the Dominator and TIV brave Mother Nature’s biggest storms on Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers”

October 2011 - The strongest tornadoes have wind speeds of more than 200 mph, which can peel bark from trees and sweep away structures, leaving only their foundations. Tornadoes cause an average of 60 to 65 fatalities and 1,500 injuries each year, according to the National Weather Service. They can measure 1 mile wide and can stay on the ground for more than 50 miles.

A tornado that measures EF5 on the Enhanced Fujita scale can dig a 2-ft. trench in the ground, says Reed Timmer, a storm chaser and meteorologist. An EF4 tornado in Minnesota with updraft wind speeds of nearly 200 mph pushed his storm-chasing vehicle, known as the Dominator, across the ground and ripped an anemometer, which measures wind speed, from its roof.

Timmer and his crew in the Dominator join filmmaker Sean Casey and his tank-like TIV (Tornado Intercept Vehicle) on Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers.” The television show follows the men as they drive their vehicles into the biggest, strongest storms to capture tornado footage and meteorological data.

The danger of a powerful tornado is very real. Last year Casey witnessed a tornado come in contact with a train and send the railcars tumbling. “As we were heading toward it, the tornado disintegrated three grain silos, so all that material was lofted up into the circulation,” including the metal structural portions of the silos, he says. “When you get to 200 mph, it’s picking up a lot of large objects at that point.”

To stay safe while collecting footage and data, the storm chasers require more than a standard car, truck or van. They need custom-fabricated vehicles that can withstand high wind speeds and potential collisions with flying debris while protecting the people inside. Heavy-duty materials and quality metalwork are important for the Dominator and TIV, which were fabricated largely by hand. Ingenuity and a lot of trial and error led to the current iterations of the two vehicles, each of which has been upgraded and revised several times as Timmer, Casey and their crews think of ways to improve them.

Driving into storms
Timmer began chasing storms in older vehicles like a 1985 Plymouth Reliant, but he wanted to explore bigger, more dangerous storms. “The only way we could measure those was to have a vehicle that protects us from flying debris so we can get really close to the strong tornadoes,” he says. Timmer turned to Kevin Barton, who had experience in race car fabrication. Barton is now the chief builder and fabricator of the Dominator.

Barton started with a 2008 Chevy Tahoe and built a roll cage around the exterior of the vehicle using standard DOM tubing. Once he built the skeleton on the outside, he initially placed a layer of 14-gauge steel, which proved to be too heavy. Barton then switched to 16-gauge hot-rolled steel. In all, he added 4,000 lbs. to the vehicle.

“We approached it the same way we would approach our race cars,” says Barton. “If you keep a stock car on the ground at 200 mph, the same principles can keep you on the ground with 200 mph winds passing over you,” he says.

Barton and his crew use mainly MIG welding on the Dominator. “Most of our sheet metal we cut by hand with nibblers. We lay out patterns and piece it together that way. We do have access to one of the die shops [in Michigan] that has a shear and some other items. We also have a plasma cutter if we have to do a little bit of a fancier design on the sheet metal,” he says. “It’s basically hand-built.”

Time constraints in part dictated what Barton could accomplish on the first version of the Dominator. His team finished it in roughly four months. “We were really scrambling, time-wise,” he says. “Our original plan with the car was to cut the back off to taper it to make it more aerodynamic like the front was. But the first year, with time constraints and everything, we weren’t able to do that, so we just built the exoskeleton and the skin around the existing shape of the Chevy Tahoe,” he says.

Evolution of the Dominator
As Timmer took the vehicle into storms, he encountered some unexpected hurdles that led to additional fabrication and changes. “It’s basically like a troubleshooting mission,” says Barton. “When we’re out, we see what the vehicle encounters,” he says, noting initially he did not know what sort of wind speeds and debris the Dominator would be encountering. Barton felt the vehicle would withstand 140 mph wind on a direct hit, but the first tornado Timmer used the Dominator to measure clocked wind speeds of 155 mph.

Timmer, Barton and their fabrication crew revamp the vehicle continually in the off-season. “Every year, the vehicle evolves,” Barton says. Eventually, the crew designed and added a spike system so when the hydraulics on the vehicle lower it during a storm, metal spikes will anchor it to the ground so it won’t slide.

During one upgrade, Barton took off the 16-gauge hot-rolled steel and replaced it with dual-phase 780 16-gauge material. “It’s a lot tougher sheet metal than the original,” he says. The tougher material presented some challenges, however.

“I would say that steel and I have kind of a love-hate relationship now,” says Barton. “It’s extremely tough to bend, and once it is bent, it is unbelievably strong.” He tried to use an older sheet metal hand brake that previously had no difficulty bending hot-rolled material. “This just laughs at it. It won’t bend it,” he says. Barton has to take the sheet metal to a machine shop and use a hydraulic press brake to bend the material successfully. “I like to tell everybody that the body was formed with a welder and hammer, because basically that’s what it was. But this material is a lot more challenging, but we were really happy with the way it turned out,” he says.

Barton used a pipe roller to smooth the lines on Dominator 2, the second version of the vehicle built on a GMC Yukon XL. “Everything is a little rounder and smoother, and we tried to get a little more aerodynamic with it,” he says. Dominator 2 is 3 in. shorter and 27 in. longer than Dominator 1.

Timmer and his team now use both Dominators in the field, taking Dominator 2 into the storms and leaving Dominator 1 at the outer edges to track the weather probes the crew fires into the tornado. Dominator 2 “will withstand a lot stronger wind than Dominator 1, but Dominator 1 hasn’t failed us yet,” Barton says. “It’s the one that’s been to war a few times. The new car has some proving to do.”

Creating the TIV
Casey built the TIV to help him acquire one-of-a-kind footage of tornadoes. He’s been criss-crossing the country for more than 10 years shooting footage with his IMAX camera, which helped guide the design of the TIV. “The design of the vehicle is pretty much based around the size of our IMAX camera,” he says. The camera is 40 in. wide and weighs 92 lbs., which makes it difficult to maneuver quickly, so Casey designed a turret for the TIV to house the camera and enable him to film during storms.

“The turret is basically built around a 48-in.-diameter steel ring,” says Casey. “What turned out to be the best way to go was to mount skateboard wheels” so the ring could rotate 360 degrees, he says. The top of the vehicle had to be at least 48 in. wide to accommodate the turret, and road restrictions required the vehicle to be no more than 102 in. wide.

Casey built the second incarnation of the TIV, known as TIV 2, using a 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 truck with four-wheel drive, an extra trial axle and a total of 10 tires. For safety in high winds, four flaps and two steel spikes are lowered to the ground hydraulically. The vehicle itself is able to lower roughly 10 in. “If we are being pushed [by the wind], it would have to bend those spikes to get the vehicle out,” says Casey, noting he believes the vehicle could withstand winds up to 200 mph as long as it didn’t come in contact with large debris. The spikes can withstand 9,500 lbs. of pressure before they bend.

“I was trying to have the best tool I could to film tornadoes, and that tool is the TIV,” says Casey. “There are lots of problems you encounter out there. You want to be as fast and fluid as you can so you don’t miss anything, because things happen extraordinarily quickly.”

Casey built a skeleton around the Dodge Ram using 2-in.-thick square tubing. “I wasn’t using round and bending it. I was just using square. It’s very angular, the vehicle. There’s no rounded parts to it,” he says. Casey cut the tube with a 14-in. circular saw.

After welding together the skeleton, Casey installed the hydraulics before adding the walling. “Our walls are 2 in. thick,” he says. From the outside moving in, the material is “a layer of aluminum, a layer of Kevlar, then aluminum, then 16-gauge steel. Then it’s 1⁄2-in. rubber, 1⁄2-in. polycarbonate, 1⁄2-in. rubber and then 1⁄8-in. aluminum,” he says. “It’s eight different types of material to stop that 2x4 that’s going 180 mph.” He attached the different layers with a combination of bolting, gluing and welding, depending on the material.

Trial and error
The TIV took roughly eight months to build and required a lot of trial and error, says Casey. He spent six weeks determining how to fabricate the turret alone. “As a filmmaker, you never expect that you are going to build a total fortress,” he says. “To build a whole turret back then took me six weeks to figure out. Now I could build a turret and a whole turret assembly in about two weeks.”

Part of the trial-and-error process for Casey was determining the 1⁄8-in. steel he used initially on the TIV made the vehicle too heavy, so he swapped some of it out for aluminum. “It was just too heavy for the vehicle,” he says. The TIV weighed in at 17,500 lbs. on a 1-ton frame. The steel side panels weighed roughly 312 lbs. each, says Casey. The same panel in aluminum weighs roughly 80 lbs.

“You lose some safety [switching to aluminum] because steel is steel,” says Casey. However, he only swapped in aluminum in less-critical areas. “These are flaps, so they are just deflecting wind back over the vehicle. It’s not like somebody is behind it,” he says. Removing the steel and adding aluminum took about three months.

So far, the TIV has never been hit by large debris. Instead, it’s hit mostly with sand, branches and rocks, which pits the exterior walls and blasts off the paint.

If an object were to hit the TIV, Casey carries tools so he can fix the problem in the field. “We have some spare bits of iron out there with us. We have got a Miller [Electric] passport welder, we have a hand grinder with grinding and cut-off wheels, and we’ve got hammers,” he says. “With those things, you can do anything. You can make anything out there.”

Using ingenuity, some basic metal-fabrication tools and a lot of work by hand, the two teams have created mobile fortresses with which to track some of Mother Nature’s most-dangerous storms. They’ve taken what they’ve learned from the earlier versions and used it to improve the latest editions—a method they’ll keep using. In fact, Casey already is making plans for TIV 3, he says. FFJ

Storm Chasers airs on the Discovery Channel on Thursdays, 10pm ET/PT

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