For many, being in the path of a twister is the definition of "wrong place, wrong time." But for storm chasers Sean Casey and Josh Wurman, that nightmare is a dream come true.
"Tornadoes are unexplored territory," said Wurman. "They're scary and horrifying, particularly if they are going through a populated area. They are also starkly beautiful."
In the growing community of tornado chasers, Wurman and Casey are the king and prince, the odd couple of an oddball profession whose turbulent mix of personalities rival the very twisters they're chasing.
"It took him two years to learn my name," said Casey. "For the first two years I chased [tornadoes with him], I was IMAX Guy."
Casey and Wurman couldn't be more different. Casey is a quick-witted, gung-ho filmmaker who chews tobacco and drinks Red Bull like it's water. Wurman is a rational, conservative meteorologist with a Ph.D. from M.I.T.
"Sean is the Oscar, and I'm the Felix of our professional marriage," said Casey.
For years, filmmaker Casey has been chasing a seemingly impossible dream. To complete his latest project, an IMAX documentary on tornadoes, he needs one final elusive shot.
"I want to get a shot of a tornado coming directly at you and impacting," said Casey. "That is the holy grail."
To capture that image and finish his film, Casey needs to be in the belly of the beast. So he's turned to scientist Wurman, who for the past 14 springs has traded in his lab coat for boots and shorts, in search of his own holy grail.
"What I'm trying to do is understand why violent tornadoes form," said Wurman. "Why are some tornadoes, this small percentage, these beasts that can rake through a town flattening homes down to their foundation."
To collect weather data in the heart of the storm, Wurman needs Casey's fearlessness.
"In a way, we are Josh's chimpanzees," said Casey. "[NASA] didn't want to send astronauts into space first, so they sent a chimpanzee."
This is the tenth spring Casey and Wurman have left their very understanding families at home to go hunting for twisters together. For the past three seasons, the Discovery Channel has tagged along, documenting every breathless moment — the near misses, direct hits, and life-and-death decisions — for the show "Storm Chasers."
Take heed and cover if their odd-looking caravan rolls into your town.
Casey rides in the Tornado Intercept Vehicle, or TIV. It's a cross between a tank and something out of Buck Rogers.
Built with his bare hands, Casey designed it to be a two-ton tornado shelter on wheels. It's completely armored with bullet proof glass, and it's equipped with special claws that anchor the vehicle to the ground when the high winds start blowing.
A data-gathering weather pod is mounted to the TIV's roof. And there's also a revolving turret for the IMAX camera from which Casey hopes to capture that coveted image.
"This is pretty much a 16,000 pound moveable tripod," said Casey.
Wurman rides in the DOW, short for "Doppler On Wheels." It's basically a mobile radar dish that stays a safe distance from the storm, tracking the weather and providing essential data.
If Casey's TIV is the chimpanzee capsule, Wurman's DOW is Mission Control.
"From here, I can coordinate our radar, tell the antenna where to spin, and look at the data, see the tornado on the screen, see where it is, which way it's going, critically how strong the winds are," said Wurman.