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Memo to Myself: Recounting Yesterday's Significant Event

IAC Hall of Fame inductee Bill Finagin gives thoughts on tornadoes

By Bill Finagin, for In The Loop, IAC Hall of Fame Inductee 2008

Bill Finagin

Being at Sun ’n Fun since last Friday, March 25, I woke up early yesterday morning (March 31) to a weather forecast of rain and possibly thunderstorms during the day. As usual the group of Aviat aircraft dealers gathered at Denny’s restaurant for breakfast at 7 a.m. and part of the conversation was about the weather. Concerns mounted throughout the morning as the weather forecast began to warn of a possibility of a tornado or two.

I checked into the Lockeed aviation weather center at about 10:30 for my second briefing of the morning just prior to three of us walking over to one of the large commercial exhibit buildings. Off and on during the morning I did occasionally think of moving the Pitts airplane off the risers we had placed it on for the exhibit but dismissed the thought as being both unnecessary as well as too much of a task as timbers and removal of landscaping materials, etc., had to be readjusted.

As I was walking through the exhibit hall with hundreds of other people I got this very clear message: Move your plane to a hangar - now!!!

Within seconds of the message I almost tripped over a friend who lives down here and has some hangars on the north (opposite) side of the airfield. When Ed Jernigan turned around we were both startled to (literally) run into each other. Almost the first thing out of my mouth, almost as if I wasn’t even in control of my speech, was my question as to whether he had any space for me to put my aircraft.

Immediately Ed said to get it over to the other side of the airport if I really felt I needed a hangar. He would be available on his cellphone as he had to leave and do some errands but would come back if I called. I immediately started back to our display area to begin the preparations to get my plane down off the display elevated risers. With the help of several other of the dealers who are all good friends as well, we began removing the materials and getting the timbers in place for removing it. In the meantime I placed a phone call to Ed and began making the complex arrangements to taxi the plane across the airport.

This involved getting motorcycle escorts and calling ground control (who had closed down in anticipation of the storm). While the others pulled my plane through the exhibit area and through the gate onto the taxiway I ran back to our trailer headquarters to get the necessary headphones for communication with the control tower.

Now back in the airplane taxiing I could only call the tower, who immediately questioned who and where I was (they were actually wondering who this idiot was in an airplane as a tornado is about to hit - information that I didn’t even know at that time). As I taxied the tower cleared me across two runways and told me to contact the northside ground control. As I contacted them they cleared me to “anywhere I wanted to go.”

Within a few minutes I was in front of Ed’s hangar. In what one might describe as a “hot dog” maneuver I powered up to the hangar at a rather “brisk rate of speed,” pulled the mixture, and spun the plane around so it was now going backward toward the open doors. Quickly getting it inside we began to close the massive doors, which were electrically operated and huge. Before the doors closed the rains began.

“Bear” Brown then took me back across the field in his vehicle, which just happened to have a special pass to go anywhere. Normally I would have had to walk about 1/2 mile into the exhibit area from the parking area. No sooner than we arrived the winds began to howl. Wind noise and the feeling of being inside the base of a waterfall would probably best describe the view outside the windows. Hail and rain made the visibility at times less than 5 feet.

We stood helplessly inside the building and watched double and triple tiedowns get ripped out of the ground. An airplane lifted off and careened through the air as if it were a paper model. The Husky on amphibious floats was lifted high into the air and moved 100 feet or more and then slammed down in the middle of the street, ironically right in front of the FAA building, on its back, wings crumpled like a pretzel. Another plane was lifted into the air, did a lateral barrel roll, and ended up a couple hundred feet away sitting upright in the street. Later when we got to it we found the tail wheel ripped off its mounting and the left stabilizer mangled as though it was nothing but a used tissue after being discarded by its user.

Elsewhere there was a Grand Caravan Cessna on its back, a Cessna 172 upside down on top of a Bonanza, and a light-sport plastered against a multimillion jet, to name only a few of the mishaps. All in all more than 40 aircraft were severely damaged and many more quietly covered or hidden until repairs could be made to ferry them back home. To sum it up, a true disaster.

No one can describe the absolute and massive wind, rain, hail, and noise that happens literally in seconds. An experience I can do without the rest of my life.

In another vein, I must mention the unbelievable assistance that was immediately offered by the people of Sun ’n Fun and the local people on the airfield. Bear Brown went out of his way and offered anything needed to help.

Don Hall, who had his own troubles with a totally submerged campsite, was there almost at daybreak to help reposition and begin repairs on the damaged Husky aircraft of Aviat. Brad Neel not only helped tow the airplanes to a safe place but also offered to drive components back to Wyoming for factory repair should that be necessary. Many others were equally helpful and gracious with their time and resources.

AOPA was also immediately up and running at their tent offering legal and technical advice to members and non-members alike to answer complex questions that many aircraft owners had never dreamed about.

On RAF.org there was a video that showed the Husky in the organization’s display breaking loose from the tiedowns and becoming airborne. The wind was recorded at more than 90 miles per hour, making it an official EF1 tornado.

-Editors note: EAA staff was also available and assisting members and non-members immediately after the storm. You can read more EAA coverage of the storm here.

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