WHEN Alan Simpson took up chasing tornadoes for a hobby, his wife Frances feared that one day she may get a call to say he was gone with the wind.

But after half a decade of visiting Kansas in the US to search for super-storms and returning without a scratch, Mrs Simpson decided she could relax.

So much, in fact, that she thought it would be time to take a trip herself to the US to see one of nature’s most impressive shows herself.

But twisters are nothing if not unpredictable, and this year Mr Simpson’s luck ran out when a stealthy cyclone formed next to the minibus he and his wife were travelling in.

The huge winds effortlessly lifted the vehicle from the road and threw it into a field before dying down and vanishing almost as suddenly.

Luckily, the passengers escaped with only broken bones, and a new-found respect for the power of the elements.

The couple, from Brookfield in Renfrewshire, have now returned home with a tale to tell of one of nature’s most destructive forces.


Frances braves the storm

Mr Simpson, said: “I just got interested in the idea of tornado chasing and it’s a real adrenaline rush when you see one. The power of these things is incredible.”

“But it always looked more dangerous than it actually is. Frances was always a bit against me going but nothing ever happened.

“So I asked her if she wanted to come along and see it for herself, and she decided to try it out.”

Tornadoes are violently rotating columns of wind and cloud that descend from the sky to the ground, usually from spectacular thunderstorms.

Windspeeds inside vary between 80mph up to 300mph, and they can be anything in size from a few feet across to nearly a mile wide.

Trying to find them and observe their movements in America’s “Tornado Alley” in the southeast states has sparked the hobby of tornado chasing, both for scientific research and for the experience, and guided tours have sprung up catering to the likes of Mr and Mrs Simpson.

The trip the couple, who have two grown-up daughters, were on was run professionally. But all the trips come with the risk of encountering more weather than the tourists bargained for.


Tornados are spectacular...


... and are sometimes accompanied by lightning

Tornadoes can form at a moment’s notice, taking even the most experienced chaser off-guard.

Mr Simpson said: “We were in a convoy of vans chasing a huge tornado, which was way ahead of us, and the rain was beating down on the van. Suddenly, the shout went up that there was a tornado off to our right.

“It was what they call a ‘rain-wrapped’ tornado – one that’s been hidden by the storm and is impossible to see forming.

“It just popped right down from the sky about 50 feet from the van and that was that. All hell broke loose.”

Mr Simpson said that he saw the back wheels of the van in front got lifted by the wind before being settled down again. Then the twister hit his own vehicle.

Because of the incredibly localised nature of a tornado’s winds, the couple’s minibus was the only one turned over.

He said: “The van (minibus) just got lifted up like it was nothing and was thrown across the road where it tipped over and rolled into a ditch.

“When it started rolling I just calmly thought ‘this is the end’, but it was over very fast. It was like being in a tumble dryer with all the luggage and people in the van being thrown about.

“It seemed to last for about 10 minutes, but was over in a few seconds. It was very quiet when we came to a stop, except for the rain hammering off the bus. That sounded like a waterfall.”


The van ended in a ditch

A tour guide was able to get the back door of the minibus open, and helped those inside to evacuate.

Of the 16 people onboard the minibus when it overturned, 11 had to go to hospital for treatment, but there were no injuries other than broken bones.

Mr Simpson suffered a broken collarbone and Mrs Simpson a fractured kneecap during the accident. Emergency services who attended said that the group had probably been saved from more serious harm because the ground was soft and saturated with rain from the storm.

Mrs Simpson said: “I was just glad to get out alive, and it could have been much worse, so we’re very grateful for that. But, really, it was just one of those things and it was an experience, to say the least.”

She joked that her daughters’ reaction – once they got over the shock of hearing their parents’ bus had been struck by a tornado – has been one of utter dismay.


The couple have returned home safe and sound

The mother-of-two said: “They are a utterly appalled at their mum and dad going off to chase tornadoes. They tell us we’re not allowed out without carers anymore.”

Mr Simpson has already signed up for next year’s tour, but his wife is hanging up her tornado-chasing kit after deciding once was enough. Asked if she intends to join her husband in his next adventure, she replied with a flat “No way.”

However, Mr Simpson said he is looking forward to his next brush with America’s biggest storms, although hopefully at a greater distance.

He said: “They really are incredible. Just an absolutely majestic sight. The lightning that sometimes accompanies them is nothing like what we see here. Once you’ve seen one of these tornadoes, Scotland’s weather seems a little tame by comparison.”


Tornado Pics: Alan Simpson. Portrait: Kirsty Anderson/The Herald