Starting from scratch in tornado country

June 2, 2011

Winding Creek Airport in Oklahoma

Photos used by permission from Thomas Apel.

Tom Apel came home from work one day last week to find a package sitting on the porch.

It was the new windsock he had ordered the week before. Now he is busy making plans to build an airport around it.

The package arrived May 25—one day after a monster tornado and several other powerful twisters touched down in central Oklahoma. The big one that struck in the vicinity of Edmond destroyed his older brother’s home, as well as three horses, six airplanes, two hangars, and an equipment barn on the family’s property in Cashion. Ten days later, one of the airplanes was still missing, except for some parts.

Everyone in Apel’s brother’s family safely escaped the tornado’s path. Apel knew about a half hour in advance that there was a good chance the property would be hit. There is a road five miles north of the place, and another five miles south. Media reports tracking the storm’s movement along the ground placed it right between the two.

From his home in Edmond, Apel watched the destruction of his airport on security cameras until the tornado was about 1,000 feet away from the buildings. Then the power failed.

Destroyed aircraft“It’s pretty much a concrete pad now,” Apel told AOPA. “The airplanes were completely destroyed. We had one airplane that disappeared. We found the tail cone and a counterweight from an aileron. A spar and gear were found about a half mile away, wrapped around a tree. That’s pretty much it.”

The storm destroyed a Waco Classic YMF-5, a 1941 Navy N3N biplane, a Christen Eagle, an Aviat Husky, a Citabria, and an Ercoupe at Apel’s Winding Creek Airport.

Local news reports first described the tornado as an EF-4 event that claimed 10 lives along a 75-mile path from Binger, Okla., to Guthrie. It was on the ground for about two hours. On June 1, the National Weather Service upgraded the tornado to the maximum rating of EF-5—the same Enhanced F Scale level as the deadly tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., on May 22.

“It’s rare to stay on the ground that long,” Apel said. “Fortunately this one stayed away from major cities. You can see the path very clearly. Anywhere there was a building in the path, now there’s just a concrete pad. It was a powerful tornado. Actually, I feel very fortunate—it’s the luck of the draw.”

Asked to compare the storm to past events, Apel, who has lived in Oklahoma most of his life, quickly recalled, “Ten or 15 years ago we had something like this—this big and ugly.”

Area residents were warned ahead of time that last week’s developing weather spelled trouble.

“We knew a day or two before. They were saying, ‘Tuesday’s the day,’” Apel said. “We get this three or four times a spring, but this time they were serious.”

Apel's Winding Creek Airport - before and after

While the tornado was on the ground, local television reports gave its location down to street intersections, and said where it would probably track in the next few minutes.

Apel, founder of the quality control company Adfitech, credits the “tremendous talent” and resources that weather forecasting brings to bear on the region’s “full-time weather” for keeping people as safe as possible in tornado country. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center is located in Norman, Okla.

Tornado watches are commonplace, he said, but tornado warnings, sometimes accompanied by the blare of civil defense sirens, are another thing. “You learn not to ignore that.”

Still, “Ninety nine point nine-nine percent of the time, it doesn’t affect you.”

This time it did, but the community wasn’t about to let the Apels face their difficulties alone.

The day after the storm, youth from Apel’s younger brother’s church group walked the property, picking up the pieces. Pilot friends have been sending Apel ads for aircraft. A contractor was in discussions to get the equipment barn and the first hangar back up in the next few months. The Waco factory got in touch to offer help.

“There’s quite a flying community out here,” Apel said.

Apel describes himself as an aviation enthusiast and a private pilot with about 2,000 hours, mostly in single-engine taildraggers. He has flown from the family’s strip since 1997, and “anything with two wings, I love to fly.”

Last month will always have bad memories, but Apel doesn’t consider it a total loss. A long campaign to put the 2,600-foot unpaved airstrip on the map—literally—finally bore fruit on May 5. Winding Creek Airport will soon show up on aeronautical charts with the identifier 56OK, Apel said.

Focusing on his airport’s difficult rebirth, he finds some joy in the little details, like replacing that old windsock.

“It was looking kind of ragged,” he said.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.