American Experience


Mr. Tornado

Mr. Tornado is the remarkable story of Ted Fujita, whose groundbreaking work in research and applied science saved thousands of lives and helped Americans prepare for and respond to dangerous weather phenomena.

AIRED: May 19, 2020 | 0:52:50

(wind howling)

(glass shattering, house shaking)

WOMAN: Sounded like a train, but I knew it wasn't.

And it just hit.

WOMAN 2: We were right underneath the front of it.

I've, I've never seen anything like it,

and I don't want to again.

WOMAN 3: Then I just said, "Lord, if it's time for me to go,

well, I, I have to say that it's my time to go."

NARRATOR: On April 3, 1974, scores of tornadoes

tore across 13 states in the center of the country,

leaving a massive path of destruction.

First responders in cities and rural areas

were overwhelmed.

MAN:We've got about 40 or 50 people injured this side of town.

GREGORY S. FORBES: There was tornado after tornado after tornado.

As the day unfolded, it became clear

that this was going to be an historic day.

NARRATOR: Hundreds died and thousands lay injured

from the Great Lakes Region to the Deep South.

The shock of the unprecedented outbreak

left Americans struggling to comprehend

what Mother Nature had wrought.

One scientist took on the challenge of understanding

what he would later call the "Super Outbreak."

Tetsuya Theodore Fujita,

a professor of meteorology at the University of Chicago,

was determined to make sense of the chaos.

NANCY MATHIS: He was a detective looking for clues,

and no detail should go unturned.

The Super Outbreak was one huge crime scene.

FUJITA: We do research on tornadoes.

And in case of future tornadoes,you know, what people should do,

that's the kind of thing we want to find out.

Right after the storm...

NARRATOR:The scene in America's heartlandwas all too familiar to Fujita.

Three decades earlier,

he had sought out answers amidst devastation

in Nagasaki and Hiroshima,

sifting through the rubble created

by the world's first atomic bombs.

MARK LEVINE: After the Second World War, he came to the U.S.

and he began a relentless pursuit

of studying the aftereffectsof severely destructive forces.

NARRATOR: His unique forensic approach to meteorology was unorthodox,

and would transform the understanding

of one of nature's most powerful phenomena.

ROBERT F. ABBEY, JR.: Fujita was able to utilize

his insights, his ingenuity,

and give us knowledge about phenomenon

which we thought was unknowable.

(waves crashing)

(air raid siren blaring)

NARRATOR: In the late morning of August 9, 1945,

in northern Kyushu, Japan,

a 24-year-old Tetsuya Fujita quickly led his students

toward an underground air raid bunker.

The young professor glanced at the sky,

but a thick layer of clouds obscured the aircraft,

a B-29 Superfortress laden with a single atomic bomb.

MATHIS: The primary target was three miles

from where Fujita was.

The bomber actually madethree attempts to drop its load.

It could not get a visual because of the clouds,

so they ended up going to their secondary target,

which was Nagasaki.

The cloud cover over his city really spared his life.

(explosion echoes)

NARRATOR: At 11:02 a.m.,

the B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

Thousands of buildings and homes were instantly destroyed.

The flash radiation of heat from the blast

scorched hillsides as far as 8,000 feet away

from Ground Zero.

(footsteps approaching)

FORBES: About a month later, Fujita was asked, as part of a team,

to go out and look at the damage pattern

around Nagasaki and Hiroshima

to see if they could determine

exact location of where the bomb detonated

and the altitude of the detonation.

NARRATOR: After closely examining the debris,

Fujita and his colleagues calculated

that the bomb had exploded 520 meters above the ground.

But what intrigued Fujita more

was the curious pattern left by the blast.

The blackened trees directly below the explosion

stood upright,

while those radiating out from Ground Zero

fell away horizontally in a starburst pattern.

As he studied the damage,

Fujita imagined the airflow from the blast

descending rapidly

and fanning outward upon contact with the ground,

toppling the trees.

ROGER WAKIMOTO: This was his first

really comprehensive damage survey.

It wasn't meteorological,

but some of his early understanding

of how to do a damage survey,

those seeds were planted during these surveys

of these two atomic bombs.

NARRATOR: In the ashes of Nagasaki and Hiroshima,

Fujita realized that the rubble told a story

beyond the tragedy of death and destruction.

Tetsuya Fujita had always explored the natural world

with a fearless curiosity.

As a young boy in Japan,

he had studied astronomy to master tidal patterns

and avoid being stranded at sea while hunting for clams.

His father, a schoolteacher,

encouraged his inquisitive nature

despite his reckless behavior.

"I thought I could measure wind," Fujita recalled.

"When a typhoon came,

my father found I was standing on top of the roof."

LEVINE: Even as a child,

and even in a society as collectivist

as pre-war Japan,

he emphasizeshis independent strain of mind.

Someone who wasn't willing to do things

the way the teachers expected him to do them,

but who might have known better.

NARRATOR: In 1939, at the age of 18,

Fujita departed from his boyhood home

for the Meiji College of Technology

to study engineering.

There, he continued to pursue his passion

for amateur meteorological experiments,

hopeful for a life filled with scientific research

in his beloved homeland.

But after the atomic bombs dropped on Japan,

everything changed for Fujita.

MATHIS: After World War II ended,

Japan's economy was absolutely devastated.

He was an assistant professor,

but there was no research going on.

Just surviving was a struggle.

One of the things he did to get extra money was,

he applied and received a grant

to do science maps, weather maps,

for local schoolteachers.

NARRATOR: Working with atmospheric data

provided by local weather stations,

Fujita created detailed maps

that revealed something other scientists overlooked.

His maps provided far more information

about localized conditions

than the larger pressure fronts

illustrated as smooth curves in textbooks.

"In the 1940s and '50s,

people would smooth out those bumps and wiggles,"

a former student recalled.

"Fujita said, 'Those bumps and wiggles mean something.'"

(thunder rumbling)

Fujita decided to address this gap in knowledge

by collecting his own atmospheric data

in the heart of a thunderstorm

atop the 3,500-foot peak of Seburi-yama Mountain.

(thunder cracking)

Lightning and 50-mile-per-hour gusts rolled past

as he carefully measured air pressure,

temperature, and wind speed.

WAKIMOTO: Most researchers at that time were sort of

looking at things across the planet.

They were looking at things

like these huge cold fronts and warm fronts.

And he said, "No, I want to study thunderstorms.

I want to study very localized phenomena."

(thunder rumbling)

That was very counter to theprevailing research at the time.

FORBES: Instead of taking the observations

once an hour for these large-scale weather systems,

he would collect the data

more frequently than that.

He began to see that there were some pressure anomalies

inside the thunderstorm

that led him to hypothesize that there were downdrafts--

down-flowing air currents--

in the thunderstorm.

Fujita was reading between the lines,

seeing and developing a whole new scale of meteorology.

NARRATOR: Fujita presented his downdraft theory

at numerous conferences in Japan,

but his peers showed little interest.

After one of his talks, however, someone handed Fujita a report

authored by a leading American meteorologist

studying thunderstorms with a similar focus.

FORBES: There was a U.S. military base there,

and someone had picked up out of the garbage

a paper that Dr. Horace Byers of the University of Chicago

had written in 1942about nonfrontal thunderstorms.

ABBEY: So Fujita reads the paper and says,

"Ah, this is what I've been working on.

I must write this man."

NARRATOR: After World War II,

as the commercial airline industry began to expand,

thunderstorms posed a serious threat

to passenger safety.

A series of storm-related plane crashes

prompted Congress to launch

a multi-agency study that became known

as the Thunderstorm Project.

The Weather Bureau selected Horace Byers as director,

with the hope that a deeper understanding of thunderstorms

would lead to safer air travel.

FORBES: They had field experiments in Ohio and in Florida

using aircraft, using radar, using surface stations,

using weather balloons.

And they had measured all sorts of phenomena

within thunderstorms.

NARRATOR: One of the major findings

identified by Byers and his colleagues

was the significant role of the thunderstorm downdraft,

the exact same phenomenon Fujita had so carefully documented

during his thunderstorm studies in Japan.

WAKIMOTO: Fujita was coming up with the same conclusions

as a major U.S.-sponsored field experiment,

which had many aircraft,

many scientists and students in the field

studying this phenomenon.

And here was this lone Japanese scientist

out in the mountains of Japan

coming up with similar conclusions.

NARRATOR: In 1951, desperate for a way out of Japan

and a postwar economythat offered few job prospects,

Fujita took a gamble.

He spent his savings

on an English-language typewriter

and mailed a copyof his research to Horace Byers.

In his reply, Byers offeredFujita the chance of a lifetime:

an invitation to help with his weather research in Chicago.

Aluminum suitcase in hand, Fujita boarded a plane

for the first time in his life

and headed for the United States.

He excitedly plotted his journey by sketching the clouds:

towering cumuli at takeoff;

orange tropical cumuli over Hawaii;

a deck of stratus above San Francisco Bay.

LEVINE: Fujita arrived at the University of Chicago

in a postwar America that was booming

and that was expanding culturally,

scientifically, economically, in enormous ways.

FORBES: The University of Chicago had top-flight people

in just about every field of meteorology.

It must have been a pretty daunting environment

for a Japanese person

to be coming for the first time to the United States.

This was not very long after World War II.

I'm sure there was a lot of anti-Japanese resentment.

WAKIMOTO: Fujita had to prove himself when he came here.

He wasn't a trained meteorologist.

He was an engineer.

His English wasn't the best.

He claimedthat all the university gave him

was a desk and a pencil,

and then he had to do everything on his own.

NARRATOR: Fujita immersed himself in his work,

eager to impress Byers with his skillful analysis

of thunderstorms in the American Midwest.

Soon, Fujita grew fascinated

with the most mysterious of severe storms--


(thunder cracking, wind blowing)

FORBES: The central part of the United States,

from the pioneer era right to the present,

has been known to be the place on Earth

that is most frequently visited by the strongest of tornadoes.

(thunder roaring, wind howling)

Anywhere from the front range of the Rockies

to the Appalachians and across the Southeast

can get, upon occasion, some very long-lived

destructive, violent tornadoes.

(wind howling, thunder rumbling in distance)

NARRATOR: Apart from knowing where they were most likely to occur,

meteorologists understood little about the behavior

of these incredibly destructive phenomena.

The rapidly spinning vortex with air rising from its base

and exiting at the top of its funnel

represents one of the most violent weather phenomena

on Earth.

For those who survive them, tornadoes often serve

as the demarcation of their life.

(winds swirling)

LEVINE: The terror of the tornado is that it can upend your life

in an instant.

(thunder claps)

There's very little warning.

It can enact a kind of total destruction

that few other things can.

(thunder rumbling, wind howling)

Tornadoes occupy a place in our minds,

even our contemporary scientific

and technically sophisticated minds,

that is akin to magic.

NARRATOR: Ever since Benjamin Franklin chased what he called

a "whirlwind" into a Maryland forest in 1754,

scientists have struggled to explain

the nature and structure of tornadoes.

Early theories ranged from a central vacuum

sucking air upward to the heavens,

to steam power or electricity

providing the storm's generative force.

Some even proposed firing cannonballs

through funnel clouds

to let the air out.

MATHIS: From the late 1800s until the 1930s,

the Weather Bureau wouldn't even say the word "tornado"

in its forecasts.

There was the idea

that people would overreact and panic

if there was a tornado warning.

So our knowledge was very limited.

What they did know

was that tornadoes were killing a large number of Americans.

FILM NARRATOR: No one knows all the facts about tornadoes,

but meteorologists can detect...

FORBES: When Dr. Fujita came to the United States,

there was not much known about tornadoes,

and a lot of what was published or taught

was wrong.

You could see in encyclopedias

that the tornado wind speeds were the speed of sound.

There was all sorts of misconceptions.

FILM NARRATOR: The exact location of the tornado

was flashedto the nearest radar station...

FORBES: By 1953, storms that were producing tornadoes

had been seen on radar,

and they were seen to have a distinctive pattern.

NARRATOR: In the coming years, the National Weather Service

would begin creating a network of radar stations

across the country

to help detect tornadoes.

The resulting flood of new data would be a gold mine

for the young Fujita,

and he would apply it in waysthat had never been done before.

(newsreel theme playing)

NEWSREEL NARRATOR: A hungry sky closes in on Fargo, North Dakota:

a tornado about to hit.

NARRATOR: In the late afternoon of June 20, 1957,

a ferocious tornado ripped through the metropolitan area

of Fargo, North Dakota.

REPORTER: Altogether, some 100 blocks were affected by the storm.

Fire and police officials were on the scene...

NARRATOR: Byers immediately dispatched Fujita to learn more.

Working with a local TV weatherman,

Fujita called upon residents to submit

their personal photos of the storm.

The young Japanese scientist then interviewed eyewitnesses

to collect their firsthand observations.

He found they were just as interested in him

as they were the research he was conducting.

"When I went out there," he said,

"some asked, 'Where is Japan?'

"They asked me what I was doing.

'I'm studying tornadoes.'"

Fujita soon collected nearly 200 images of the storm--

blurry pictures of flying debris to most people,

a treasure trove of data to Fujita.

FORBES: Fujita gathered photographs

from 53 different locations.

Someone has taken a picture of the tornado here

looking one direction,

another person at the same time has taken a picture

looking from another direction.

LEVINE:He very meticulously identified the location

from which each shot was taken.

He corrected for the differences of perspective,

and he was able to put together

a single narrative of the tornado.

NARRATOR: After two years of painstaking analysis,

Fujita assembled the first motion picture

depicting the entire life cycle of a tornado

and what Fujita named its rotating "parent" cloud,

or supercell thunderstorm.

Out of Dr. Fujita's studies of the 1957 Fargo tornado

came terms that are still used.

Wall cloud, the low-hanging cloud

that is the rotating updraft portion of the storm.

The tornado often drops down near the edge

or right underneath that.

Collar cloud, a little ring around the wall cloud.

Tail cloud, horizontal tube that comes in

from the edge of the storm

and gets picked up in the updraft.

It was one of the masterful studies of all time

for severe-weather meteorology.

NARRATOR: Fujita's research declaredthat tornadoes were not random,

but instead occurred as the result

of "well-organized conditions."

Having proved that tornadoes could indeed

be approached and studied,

he was more determined than ever

to unlock the mysteries of what caused these severe storms.

LEVINE:Fujita knew that he needed a way to study tornadoes

independent of that chance event

of having a lot of people supply photos--

that the tornado would provide its own clues.

NARRATOR:In 1965, Fujita began chartering low-flying Cessna aircraft

in order to get to the aftermath of tornadoes

as quickly as possible.

Thrilled by his new vantage point, he spent hours

scouring the landscape for evidence,

snapping thousands of photographs.

LEVINE:He is able to look at tornadoes' destructive paths,

and he's able to detect

moment-by-moment changes and fluctuations

in the behavior of the tornado

that leads to an understanding

that a tornado is not just a thing,

but a tornado is, rather, a process--

a kind of living, moving, changing dynamic event.

NARRATOR: On some of his surveys,

Fujita noticed peculiar circular patterns

across the main tornado funnel path.

Meteorologists believed

that these gouge marks were caused by the tornado

dragging heavy objects along the ground.

But Fujita had a different theory.

FORBES: Dr. Fujita saw

that these weren't scratches-- they were piles of debris

that were left behind.

Usually, it was piles of corn stubble

that were about six inches or 12 inches deep.

He began to hypothesize that there were spots

of maybe low pressure in the tornado that, like vacuums,

were sucking in the corn stubble.

He proposed that they were tornadoes within the tornado--

multiple suction vortices.

NARRATOR: If correct, Fujita's theory explained a phenomenon

that had vexed weather researchers for decades:

why one house could be destroyed during a tornado

while one next door would be left untouched.

WAKIMOTO: This was an enormous leap of faith,

because at that time, there wasno photograph of this occurring.

And so he was immediately criticized,

and the first thing that came out of people's mouth is,

"Well, show me a picture of this."

Well, he had no picture.

And this played out in many conferences,

where they would literally argue with each other.

You would just see these battle royals,

of one saying that, "You're wrong,"

and Ted would stand up and say, "No, you're wrong."

NARRATOR:Fujita met his critics head-on,

confident that he would one day prove his theory.

"Not to have seen something," he asserted,

"does not mean that such a thing does not exist."

Fujita's bold theories

were earning him a reputation as the idea man

of the meteorological community.

At the University of Chicago,

he became a full professor of meteorology

and director of the newly created

Satellite and Mesometeorology Research Project, or SMRP.

He wrote prolifically about severe weather.

But the method he used to disseminate

his unorthodox ideas

was controversial.

WAKIMOTO:Fujita had very little patience.

When he finished doing research,

he wanted it to hit the street immediately.

He could not wait months and months and months.

If you look at his publication record,

he does not have a lot of publications

in the peer-reviewed literature,

but what he does have

is hundreds of publications in SMRP,

because he had total control over that.

This was his publication.

ABBEY: The downside to it was, almost anything and everything

that could be written or summarized quickly

were in those reports.

So they were of very uneven quality.

Ted felt that he didn't need a review process.

That this, he was merely reporting what was observed,

what was documented,

as far as Fujita was concerned.

NARRATOR: Fujita struggled to balance work with family.

He took lengthy road trips with his wife and young son

in their 1951 Mercury,

visiting every state except Rhode Island.

These family vacations never interfered

with his absolute dedication to his research.

WAKIMOTO: He had one son, but I think even he would say

that they didn't have the closest relationship.

Work was everything.

He worked night and day, and family was, I think,

to be honest, was secondary.

NARRATOR: In 1968, Fujita was divorced from his wife of 20 years,

but he soon remarried.

He also became an American citizen,

and gave himself the middle name Theodore.

His closest friends called him Ted.

Though he remained nostalgic for his childhood in Japan,

Fujita understood America held his fortunes.

"I never felt, until I got my citizenship,

that I would stay here forever," Fujita recalled.

"It was a very mixed feeling."

Fujita's scrupulous analysis

of the many aerial photographs he had collected

convinced him that not all tornadoes

were created equal.

Some caused extreme damage, others very little at all.

In 1971, Fujita set out to classify

these variations in tornado intensity.

He decided to create a six-point scale

and named it after himself.

In the Fujita Scale,

an F0 signified wind speeds up to 72 miles per hour,

causing "light damage."

An F5 was the most powerful tornado,

with winds up to 318 miles per hour.

Evidence of an F5 included strong frame houses

ripped from their foundations,

debarked trees,and cars flying through the air.

With an F5, Fujita proclaimed,

"Incredible phenomena can occur."

Anything beyond an F5 would be inconceivable.

Critics challenged his method of estimating wind speed.

Undaunted, Fujita aggressively advocated

for the acceptanceof his tornado intensity scale.

It's very difficult to compute the wind speed

because tornadoes swirl very fast.

NARRATOR:He believed that devising a way to quantify tornado damage

was a critical first step

towards understanding their tendencies.

And moved pretty fast.

REPORTER:If we were to justlook out that window,

and I was to say,"There's a tornado,"

what wouldyour reaction be?

I would grab a camera and go up to the roof.

NARRATOR: Fujita's confidence and charm won over reporters,

who soon dubbed him "Mr. Tornado."

Try to pinpoint which particular thunderstorm

might produce tornado...

LEVINE: Fujita proudly built this little fiefdom

at the University of Chicago,

and hosted a stream of guests to his laboratory,

where he had built a tornado simulation device,

and would regale them

with his trove of documents about disaster.

He was interested in gaining a high profile

for the kind of research he did

and for himself.

But for the F-Scale to take hold in the popular imagination,

there was some need

for a really high-profile tornado event,

and that's what Fujita got

on April 3 and 4 of 1974.

(birds chirping)

NARRATOR: April 3, 1974, dawned like any ordinary day.

Americans across the Midwest

bought their morning paper to catch up

on the Patty Hearst kidnapping

and President Nixon's tax troubles.

While forecasters were predicting

scattered thunderstorms,

the unseen atmospheric forces above the heart of America

were inching perilously towards volatility.

At 11:00 a.m., the heavens opened up.

Baseball-sized hail broke windows and tree limbs

in central Illinois.

At 12:10 p.m., the first tornado of the day touched down,

damaging some billboards in Morris, Illinois.

By 2:00, a tornado struck Decatur,

killing an elderly man in his mobile home

while seriously injuring his wife.

FORBES: As the day unfolded,

and we were running back and forth to the teletype

that was spitting out the reports

and the warnings...

The thunderstorm warning has been changed

to a tornado warning for MetroLouisville, Jefferson County...

We're seeing that, oh,there's just storms everywhere.

It's even bigger area than we expected it to be.

We're getting Fujita excited at that point.

He's pumped.

(warning siren begins)

NARRATOR: Sirens blared in the few towns

equipped with warning systems.

Even then,

residents barely had time to take cover.

(man talking indistinctly over radio)

LEVINE: You literally had people all over the country

driving their cars off to the side of the road

and jumping in ditches

to try to get out of the paths of these tornadoes.

(warning sirens blaring in distance)

NARRATOR: People watched in horror

as more tornado funnels formed.

(wind howling)

Until darkness fell,

when they could no longer see the devils approaching.

(sirens wailing)

LEVINE: There were people who,

lacking a basement, took shelter

in the bathrooms of their housesand were found dead in bathtubs.

There were people

who did what you were supposed to do,

and rushed to their basement,

who were found deadin the rubble of their basement.

(people talking in background)

NARRATOR: While the tornadoes continued to rage into the next morning,

Fujita scrambled to assemble Cessna crews

so he could survey the damage before it was too late.

LEVINE: The human tendency in response to destructive events

is to clean things up right away.

Fujita thought that the site of tornado damage

was something like a crime scene,

and he wanted the evidence to be preserved

because he believed that it held the key

to unlocking the meaning and dynamics of these storms.

FORBES: I was a graduate student of Dr. Fujita's at the time.

Fujita gave a little bit of coaching,

but I was filled with a mixture of excitement

and a little bit of nervousness.

We were asking people to tell where they were

and what happened.

There was just so many tornadoes,

we needed help from the public

in terms of getting as much information as we could.

LEVINE: People are really in a state of shock.

When they encountered a person who's asking questions

that seemed not to address their welfare,

my sense is that there was often a certain confusion,

like, "What, what's going on?"

FORBES: I think it's important to point out, though,

that we're scientists.

There's nothing that we can doto fix what nature has wrought.

So it's our job to be out there

just trying to document what has happened.

We can't be tearing up and so on over...

We've just got to be doing our job, and...

And then maybe having somenightmares about it afterwards.

NARRATOR: Crisscrossing the country,

Fujita flew over 10,000 miles in his Cessna,

documenting the damage firsthand.

But his work had only just begun.

The evidence he and his staff gathered

would become part of the most sophisticated tornado study

Fujita had ever attempted.

Through thousands of photographs,

radar and satellite imagery,

maps, and firsthand accounts,

Fujita pieced togetherthe enormity of what transpired

in those two days in April.

Then he rendered it in chilling detail in a hand-drawn map.

315 deaths and 5,484 injuries

charted against time, location, and demographics.

2,598 miles of damage paths carefully traced and adorned

with changing F-Scale classifications.

Fujita calculated that a total of 148 tornadoes

had torn through 13 states in a 17-hour period.

He named this extraordinaryoccurrence the "Super Outbreak."

FORBES: He really nailed it in terms of documenting

the worst tornado outbreak inthe United States at that point.

The Super Outbreak set in stone permanently

Dr. Fujita's legend as Mr. Tornado.

(wind blowing)

NARRATOR: Fujita also gathered evidence that had eluded him for years.

Footage shot in Ohio and Indiana

showed the multiple suction vortices

Fujita envisioned from circular marks in cornfields

years before.

WAKIMOTO: And then, all the criticism stopped,

and people said, "Gosh, we see it now.

You're right," and so he was vindicated.

NARRATOR:Fujita's Super Outbreak researchbecame an indispensable resource

of future tornado risk assessment

and climatology studies.

More importantly for Fujita,

his F-Scale was emblazoned in the minds of Americans.

WAKIMOTO: Before the creation of the F-Scale,

you would just say,"Oh, that was a strong tornado."

Now if you say, "That was an F5 tornado,"

you have an immediate picture,

because with the F-Scale, Fujita had all these images

of what that damage would look like.

That was a brilliant maneuver by Ted Fujita.

NARRATOR: By 1975, Fujita was hailed

as the nation's premier tornado researcher.

His years of expertise would soon be tested

in a way he had not foreseen.

(news theme playing)

ANNOUNCER: This is "NBC Nightly News," Tuesday, June 24,

with John Chancellor.

Good evening.

More than 100 people were reported dead in a plane crash

near New York's Kennedy Airport this afternoon.

Eastern Flight 66 was on whatappeared to be a normal approach

when it either exploded in the air

or dove into the ground-- accounts differ.

It was raining heavily at the time.

When the plane hit the ground,

parts of it skidded across a highway

filled with rush-hour traffic,

smashing cars.

(sirens blaring in distance, helicopter hovering)

NARRATOR: It was the deadliest single-plane crash

in U.S. history to that day.

The ensuing

National Transportation Safety Board report

cited normal thunderstorm activity

at the time of the accident,

suggesting pilot error was the cause of the crash.

Yet still, questions remained.

Eastern Air Lines asked Fujita to conduct

an independent study.

WAKIMOTO: They said, "What happened?

"This plane fell out of the sky, it crashed,

and we don't know why."

They came to Ted and said,

"You're the expert, you're the severe-storm expert, help us."

NARRATOR: Fujita went to work.

He meticulously pieced together satellite imagery,

radar echoes, and synoptic data.

He reviewed black box recorders

and interviewed pilots of the 14 planes

that approached runway 22-L at JFK Airport

that tragic afternoon.

Then he made a leap of imagination.

Tapping into his years

of detailed analysis of destruction,

he connected the crash toNagasaki and the Super Outbreak.

MATHIS: While he was flying over the Super Outbreak,

he saw a area where the trees were felled in all directions

in a starburst pattern,

and it was certainly something similar

to what he saw in Nagasaki.

That led him to theorize that there was

basically an explosion of airthat came out of a thundercloud

and caused this plane to crash.

WAKIMOTO: He thought that it was a very powerful downdraft

that he later termed a microburst--

that, you know, came down, struck, spread out,

caused the aircraft to lose lift and just come crashing down.

And it was so small-scale and short-lived

that by the time the next aircraft came, it was gone.

NARRATOR: Fujita argued that his new microburst theory

explained why other airplanes around the country

were mysteriously crashing.

His colleagues thought that he had gone too far.

The meteorological community pushed back hard.

They accused Fujita of simply redefining

a thunderstorm downdraft,

and scoffed at the possibility that such a violent phenomenon

could have gone unnoticed for decades.

LEVINE: Fujita had grown accustomed to being a revered figure.

He had every expectation that his views on what had happened

in the Eastern Air Lines crash

would be given a lot of respect.

WAKIMOTO:I was there literally shoulder- to-shoulder with him

when he said, "Look, there are aircraft

"literally falling out of the sky.

"There are hundreds of people dying

with each one of these accidents."

You know, "When are people going to start listening to me

and understanding what's really happening here?"

MATHIS: There was a sense of urgency to this theory.

A, there were additional airline crashes,

and B, to uphold his reputation.

One of Fujita's great fears

is that this would not be resolved in his lifetime.

NARRATOR: Fujita went on the offensive,

with the hunch that the new Doppler radar technology

would prove his theory.

He organized three extensive experiments in the Midwest

hoping to find evidence of microbursts.

For weeks, Fujita came up empty-handed.

Then, on May 29, 1978,

his intuition paid off.

WAKIMOTO: When he was at one of the Doppler radar sites,

a microburst came straight down and struck and spread out

while the Doppler radar was scanning.

So, he actually had this incredible

vertical cross-section of a microburst

as it was happening.

So, not only was the radar collecting data,

he lived the microburst.

NARRATOR: Over the next eight years,

Fujita's Doppler radar experiments

went on to capture hundreds of microbursts,

rebuffing years of doubt from his peers.

More importantly, it led to changes in aviation safety,

saving countless lives.

FORBES:As a consequence of all of this, the F.A.A. deploys

fine-scale surface weatherinstrumentation around airports

to be detecting wind shear.

And there's pilot training that takes place

to teach the pilots the recognition, visually,

of what might be a microburst

and what to do about it.

That has undoubtedly

saved hundreds of lives

relative to the status quo

that might have taken place had he not said,

"This is a new phenomenon."

Despite being known as Mr. Tornado,

Dr. Fujita didn't see his first tornado

until he was 61 years old.

It was during one of the microburst field experiments

out in the Denver area.

NARRATOR: On June 12, 1982,

Fujita's researchers were positioning

three Doppler radar systems just north

of Denver's Stapleton International Airport,

while Fujita tracked a distant line of thunderstorms

with his camera.

He was framing a toweringcumulus cloud in his viewfinder

when suddenly, a slender, white funnel appeared.

Fujita pressed his camera shutter at 4:21 p.m.

After three-and-a-half decades of tornado research,

Mr. Tornado had finally seen one.

WAKIMOTO: So you can imagine the excitement,

not only for all of us,his colleagues, that he saw it,

but for him personally.

He was just as giddy as I've ever seen him

after seeing his first tornado.

There was a big drinking party after,

because we all wanted to celebrate with him.

NARRATOR: In the years following,

Fujita's microburst discovery was celebrated worldwide.

In 1989, after receiving the Vermeil Gold Medal Award

in Toulouse, France,

the French National Academy of Air and Space

arranged for a special gift:

a cross-Atlantic flight aboard a supersonic Concorde jet.

Seated in the cockpit,

Fujita recalled his first flight to the United States,

37 years earlier.

"Since leaving Japan," he noted, "technology had advanced."

"So did my knowledge of meteorology,"

Fujita later wrote, "along with my standing

in the scientific community."

Within a year of his Concorde flight,

upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70,

Fujita reluctantly walked away from his post

at the University of Chicago.

He used his newfound freedom towrite a circuitous autobiography

chronicling his career achievements

and personal life

with his signature analytical treatment.

ABBEY: It's curious to me.

I mean, it's an interesting organization of memoirs.

It's not chronological, it's,I guess, more or less by topic.

He was not concerned about who he is.

He was concerned about what he was able to do.

LEVINE: It documents his need to document,

to be remembered.

His memoir does not offer much

of the personal or emotional life of Fujita,

but in a lot of ways,

it's strangely moving as the record

of the mind and times of someone who is

cut from different cloth than most others.

NARRATOR:Shortly after his 75th birthday,

Fujita set about trying to unravel one last mystery:

his ailing health.

ABBEY: He develops symptoms that he cannot explain.

And they say he's diabetic, and they prescribe a medicine,

and he gets worse.

And Ted says, "Why should I get worse

when I'm supposed to get better?"

He starts, as only Fujita can,

to describe variations in pain along his leg.

NARRATOR: Fujita tracked his ailments as meticulously

as he had tornadoes,

even creating a Fujita Pain Scale

to note that his ever-increasing discomfort

had reached intolerable limits.

MATHIS: As he had for all of his life, he continued

to document and map and diagram everything.

He continued to find patterns in everything he did.

NARRATOR:In the final months of his life,

Fujita received the professional recognition

he had pursued his entire career,

when the American Meteorological Society announced their plans

to honor him at their annual symposium.

WAKIMOTO:He struggled early in his career to sort of gain respect

as a serious researcher that had a lot to give to the field.

And so when that's sort of driving you,

I think there's no question

that the awards that come later mean a lot.

That shows that the long, hard road was worth it

and that you finally have gained the respect, the recognition--

your peers are honoring you.

NARRATOR: Tetsuya Theodore Fujita passed away on November 19, 1998.

He was 78 years old.

Fujita spent a lifetime struggling to understand

the mysteries hidden within severe storms.

He died knowing that many unanswered questions remained.

But his spirit of inquiry

and his tireless, unorthodox approach

left an indelible mark on meteorology.

FORBES:He came up with ideas that were beyond the accepted norm

and was often questioned for that,

but Dr. Fujita made tremendous contributions

to our understanding of tornadoes,

to aviation safety.

America is safer today because of his pioneering efforts.

WAKIMOTO: He was one of these true individuals

that are sort of visionaries,

and you lose something when these people pass on.

You know they would have continued

to come up with brilliant ideas, would have advanced the field,

would have excited the community,

would have excited students,

and that's something that is not easy to replace.

MATHIS: There's not a hard line between science and art,

and I think a lot of what Fujita did

was as much art as science.

And he was able to take creativity

and apply it in a scientific way,

and imagine things

that no one had ever thought of before.


  • ios
  • apple_tv
  • android
  • roku
  • firetv