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6 Degrees Entertainment

'American Experience: Mr. Tornado'
(DVD / PG-13 / 2020 / PBS)

Overview: Meteorologist Tetsuya Theodore "Ted" Fujita spent ten months studying The Super Outbreak of 1974, which was the most intense tornado outbreak on record.

'Mr. Tornado' is the remarkable story of the man whose groundbreaking work in research and applied science saved thousands of lives and helped Americans prepare for and respond to dangerous weather phenomena.

DVD Verdict: The Super Outbreak of 1974 was the most intense tornado outbreak on record, tearing a vicious path of destruction across thirteen states, generating 148 tornadoes from Alabama to Ontario, damaging thousands of homes, and killing more than 300 people.

Meteorologist Tetsuya Theodore "Ted" Fujita spent ten months studying the outbreak's aftermath in the most extensive aerial tornado study ever conducted, and through detailed mapping and leaps of scientific imagination, made a series of meteorological breakthroughs.

In one of the most interesting documentaries I have seen in the past decade (or more), we eagerly watch along and learn that Fujita's discovery of "microbursts," sudden high wind patterns that could cause airplanes to drop from the sky without warning, transformed aviation safety and saved untold numbers of lives.

While many meteorologists today rely upon computers to do their analyses, Fujita preferred to do his own, according to Chicago meteorologist Duane Stiegler. “He used to say that the computer doesn’t understand these things,” said Stiegler, who worked closely with Fujita from 1977 until the latter’s death.

In the 1950s, Fujita began conducting pioneering research in the field of mesometeorology, the study of middle-sized, atmospheric phenomena such as hurricanes and tornadoes.

By the end of his career, he had received nearly $12 million in grants from agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research.

Fujita made the first color movie of planet Earth in 1967, a technique now widely used on television weather reports. Fujita made the movie using 34 color pictures taken at 30-minute intervals from the ATS-III satellite whose orbit provided a stationary view of the Earth.

The satellite was equipped with a camera stable enough to accurately determine cloud motion relative to the Earth’s rotating surface.

“After devising the Fujita Tornado Scale with his wife Sumiko in 1971, he became known as ‘Mr. Tornado,’” Partacz said. Fujita’s six-point F-scale ranges from F0, winds of 40 to 72 miles an hour and minor damage, to F5, winds of 261 to 319 miles an hour and massive destruction.

“His investigation of the Eastern Airlines Flight 66 aircraft accident in 1975 at New York’s JFK Airport led him to discover the killer winds he called microbursts,” Partacz said.

“This important discovery helped to prevent microburst accidents that previously had killed more than 500 airline passengers at major U.S. airports.”

The starburst patterns of uprooted trees found in forests following tornadoes led Fujita to his theory of microburst winds. He had seen similar patterns years before — when he had visited Nagasaki and Hiroshima just weeks after the atomic bombs were dropped to observe shock-wave effects on trees and structures in the devastated areas.

The theory stirred controversy for years. Many meteorologists found it difficult to believe in the concept of a microburst, a small-sized downdraft that could induce an outburst of 150-mile-an-hour winds on or near the ground.

But Fujita continued to collect data in critical field experiments with imaginative acronyms: NIMROD (Northern Illinois Meteorological Research on Downburst in Chicago’s western suburbs, including O’Hare Airport, 1978-79), JAWS (Joint Airport Weather Studies, Denver, 1982-86), and MIST (Microburst and Severe Thunderstorm project, Huntsville, Ala., 1986-88).

Fujita’s data eventually led to the widespread acceptance of the microburst concept and to the installation of Doppler radar at airports to improve aviation safety. Learn more about this amazing man in the just-released 'American Experience: Mr. Tornado,' out now on PBS DVD. This is a Widescreen Presentation (1.85:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs.