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Don Paul: Wincing as I relive my biggest mistake

Over 42 years in television, one is bound to have some embarrassing moments. Yes, a badly blown forecast on a major event is in the pile. The October 2006 snow disaster, which took all forecasters down, comes quickly to mind. That was a biggie among embarrassments.

The biggest one of all for me, though, didn’t connect with a major weather event. It was actually a small-potatoes non-event, but it still makes me wince to this day when I think about it.

It came in my first few days at work in Wichita, just four months into my career (after a short three months in Bangor). When I worked in Bangor (city population 34,000) not only didn’t my poverty-stricken station have a radar, but nor did that entire region. I could get a facsimile still image of a distant Naval Air Station’s weather radar at Bangor International Airport’s Flight Service Station on the way to work, but that was it.

Let’s just say such images were old and lower resolution than a contact lens smeared with chicken fat.

When I got to KAKE-TV in Wichita (city population 389,000) it was a different world. KAKE was the powerhouse news ratings leader in that medium market, and it had its own radar. Actually, it was a low-end aviation radar we colorized. The colorizer cost more than the radar. “Color radar” was just becoming all the rage in the mid-'70s. I couldn’t find a KAKE radar image from that era, but this Dallas WFAA image is about what ours looked like.

Interesting sidebar: KAKE spent the money on a radar and colorizer, but it didn’t spend the money on a radome to cover the rotating antenna and protect it from the wind. Believe me, those winds really DO come whistling down the plains. When you stood outside in the wind, you could hear that radar gearbox straining against the wind as the antenna dish captured the gusts. It sounded like someone had loaded a rotisserie chicken way off center as the spit turned. Bad sound, but it worked.

In any case, my pre-TV radar training was lackluster, and my hands-on experience was nil. In college, we took a field trip to the U.S. Weather Bureau in Rockefeller Center and watched them operate their WSR-57 radar. That’s as close to touching a radar console as I’d gotten. Things are a little better at Rutgers these days, home of the worst Big 10 football team and best on campus Doppler radar.

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When I got to KAKE, it was my first time in the plains. My colleague, an ex-USAF meteorologist named Jim O’Donnell, tried to give me a crash course in how to operate our Enterprise WR-100 radar.

Crash course? Yes. He hadn’t had a vacation in over a year and couldn’t wait to take one in a few days after he broke me in.

After a day or two, we had a looming thunderstorm over Concordia, Ka., on radar, about 120 miles north of Wichita. Jim and I went out to the parking lot during dinner break, and there I saw a towering cumulonimbus storm cloud seemingly close on the horizon. I said, “Jim, where the hell did THAT storm come from??” He answered, “THAT’s the Concordia storm.” Holy smokes! You just didn’t get that kind of visibility in the NYC area. Let’s just say the plains are different; very different.

He showed me how to run radar checks on precipitation, including strong convection, by using toggle switches to attenuate/weaken the radar signal, and to stop the radar rotation, target the beam on a storm, and elevate the beam up and down to examine the storm structure for precipitation strength and storm height. This would also help separate the wheat from the chaff, Kansas pun intended.

When the atmosphere is layered and very stable, with a warm layer of air overlying a cooler layer, the layer boundary is called a temperature inversion. That inversion can actually bend the radar beam back down and produce a false echo on the scope. These false echoes can make something you’ve heard us mention: ground clutter. Or, with stronger inversions and a moist lower atmosphere, the echoes can actually resemble strong convective cells. This phenomena is called AP, shorthand for anomalous propagation. AP can look like this.

So, Jim left for his vacation. On his first night away, I had a situation in which we had something of a hybrid set up, with pockets of moist, unstable air developed around the stable air near Wichita. About 20 minutes before our 10 p.m. cast, I saw this ominous cell blow up north of the city, with a glowing red core that indicated torrential rain and possible large hail. And I saw some garden-variety cells farther out from the metro area. One problem was all radar then was live, with no “time lapse” capability to track motion. You had to draw on the scope to gradually determine movement. It was very close to air time, and I went into full excitement mode, wondering why the Wichita National Weather Service was saying nothing about this huge cell. I ran a “crawl” on the bottom of the screen warning of the possible development of severe weather just north of the city.

A minute later, the phone rang. “This is the Wichita weather office. You that new fella?” “Yessir.” “Uh, what you got there is your AP.” He gently explained my mistake, which surely was caused by omitting one of the two checks in my rush to be first with a crawl. At 10 p.m., we ran a lead story and came to me on our now-unheard of 57 share newscast. I’m quite certain I’d sweated through my shirt and my suit by then. And, honest to goodness, I remember my words: “Look at it this way, folks. If I’d been working the radar on Oahu, they NEVER would’ve gotten through to Pearl Harbor.”

Lame humor, true enough, but Wichita forgave me, thank goodness.

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