As tornado forecasting goes, threatening conditions don’t get much worse than what Georgia expected the weekend of Jan. 21.
Meteorologists accurately warned of the potential for deadly tornadoes in waves of dangerous storms.
In the middle of the outbreak, the unthinkable happened: the Robins Air Force Base Doppler radar stopped working.
Technological advances in radar help warn residents when a deadly twister is on the way.
In a radius of about 200 miles, the Robins radar sends out bursts of energy that reflect back when hitting raindrops or other particles in the air.
It was in service and collecting data the morning of Jan. 21 when nearly two dozen tornadoes touched down in central and southern Georgia.
Advanced warning during those storms was credited with saving lives across Middle Georgia, but the region was bracing for an even greater threat Sunday —without its most valuable tool.
Brian Lambert, chief of the Air Traffic Control and Landing Systems, or ATCALS maintenance work center at Robins, got a call from the National Weather Service about 5 p.m. informing him the radar was not working.
Saturday night, two technicians discovered that the elevation motor that turns the antenna had burned out.
“The antenna was no longer spinning in a circular motion, so we couldn’t see what was going on around us. It was just stuck,” said George Pacheco, of the 78th Operations Support Squadron at Robins.
Replacing it is a four-person job, so they would have to find a replacement part and come back.
“We knew the weather was going to get severe, and we knew it was headed in this direction,” Lambert said.
By 3:30 a.m., a killer storm had touched down in Brooks County in southeast Georgia and tracked nearly 25 miles into Cook and Berrien counties.
Conditions remained volatile, but there was an opportunity for a break in the weather.
By 7 o’clock the next morning, the National Weather Service had called again, and Lambert asked for volunteers to try to get the radar restored before the next round expected in the afternoon.
“We had guys respond all the way from Tennessee to Valdosta,” he said.
Knowing they had about a four-hour window before the next round of storms, the crew climbed the tower on Ga. 96 outside Jeffersonville in Twiggs County, a site far enough away to keep frequencies on base from interfering with the readings.
“It’s just a very important tool used by meteorologists in the local area to predict such things as wind shear, storm velocity,” Pacheco said. “All those came into play during that weekend where we had several tornadoes touch down in the local area.”
By 8 a.m. Sunday they were at work and had the system up by that afternoon — just in time for two more tornadoes to touch down in Bleckley County.
The National Weather Service called to thank the crew.
“They were really grateful and said that the actual system was critical in predicting bad weather in this area specifically,” Lambert said. “These guys make my job easy. They are the best team. I tell them all the time I don’t think they get enough recognition.”