Video of and Tribute to Don Burgess

Roy Britt, longtime storm enthusiast and occasional chaser since 1981, recently posted a 54-minute 1998 interview with atmospheric scientist Don Burgess, formerly of NSSL and OSF (now WDTB).

Here’s the link (embedding is disabled):

This is absolutely fascinating. Don offers a richly personalized look into the history of radar meteorology, scientific storm chasing and severe-storm science in general. His account is full of entertaining stories, including compelling chasing anecdotes about Al Moller, Erik Rasmussen and Gene Moore, and interesting tales about other famous severe-storms meteorologists of the era like Les Lemon, Joe Golden, John McGinley, and Chuck Doswell. I have heard most of these stories over the years, from Don, Erik, Al, Chuck and others involved; but it’s great to have them online for posterity.

Admittedly, I would have done the very same thing as Don on the Union City day (24 May 1973)–briefly leave my post at the radar to run up to the roof and see the tornado in the distance. And like Don, I would have found the resulting performance-evaluation penalty a small price to pay for the experience! Fortunately, since Don was my own supervisor as a Federal student-employee of NSSL, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have gotten in trouble. Alas, we didn’t have visible tornadoes in central Oklahoma in the late 1980s to test that hypothesis.

Like Don, as a student, I simply and audaciously showed up at the lab and asked for a job. It turns out they had one open at the time, unlike Don’s lengthy waiting experience. Rodger Brown interviewed and hired me…and got me to working directly for Don in the Forecast Applications Research group. As he did 15 years prior, I also analyzed Doppler radar data at times, and chased with the storm-intercept teams at every possible opportunity (including TOTO in 1986, DOPLIGHT-87, and IOT&E2 of 1989).

Admittedly, the most fun part of the job–besides the paid storm chasing–was sorting, categorizing and managing the NSSL slide and movie collections! Yet analyzing those huge reams of gridded radar-number printouts (known at the time as BSCANS), and tapping Don’s deep expertise, taught me a great deal about Doppler radar that has benefited every single step of my career. His guidance provided the early, foundational knowledge of Doppler concepts needed to stay abreast of the scientific advancements in that realm since. What a blessing it was, as an 18- and 19-year-old, to gain immersive understanding of concepts such as volume-scanning, spectrum width, velocity dealiasing, second-trip echoes, range folding, mesocyclone algorithm, TVS, dual-Doppler analysis, and all sorts of real-world storm signatures in both base moments and derived Doppler products. Credit Don for that.

I couldn’t have asked for a better supervisor. It wasn’t always easy to be patient with me, especially as a younger adult, but he was. He was the rare sort of manager who would inspire his charges to an extent that they would run through walls (or more appropriately, nighttime mesocyclones) for him. In 1989, while still an undergraduate student, Don somehow trusted me to supervise an NSSL chase crew and drive its van for the NEXRAD radar-verification program (IOT&E2). That was a gutsy call on his part, but I tried never to betray that trust. On a few occasions, we heard Don’s distinctive voice crackle over the radio while returning late at night from Texas storms intercepted during the day. I didn’t think twice about answering, “Control, this is Nessel-2…sure, Don, we’ll do it!”–to his radio queries on whether we were willing to plunge through a given potentially tornadic supercell. Obviously, we did survive, despite a few white-knuckled moments and sudden 180-degree wind shifts on those dark country roads of southern Oklahoma. Learning experiences…

Don also was and is a great guy (which should be self-evident simply via the video), and devoted family man. Folks like Don–and there aren’t many–stand as refreshing exceptions to the vice-ridden minefields of human nature. He is down-to-earth and humble in person, in contrast to his giant stature in radar meteorology. He is officially retired now, but remains heavily involved in the science, and also remains very deservedly and highly respected throughout the severe-storms community.


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