"Funnel Hawk," by Tom Ligon
Appeared in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, June 1990
Ed wanted to dub the trainer "Toto," but NSSL had already taken it for an oil drum full of instruments they kept trying to pitch off the back of a pickup truck into the path of a tornado. After a few embarrassing flights, we settled on "The Wicked Witch of the Mid-West."
There's always something to be learned from history, and it's in older books that you learn it. For example, I learned that Tom Ligon not only did Twister one better, but did it six years before the movie came out. Sure, maybe 1990 isn't *history* history, but it sure isn't just yesterday either. While I did get a Twister vibe from the story, Michael Crichton would be more to blame for that - stories about storm chasers tend to follow similar tracks by their very nature.
"Funnel Hawk" follows Susan Denton, a university scientist and storm chaser chafing at the futility of studying how and why tornadoes form from below. She believes that there's another, far more effective way to study heavy weather - from the air. The only problem with this is that heavy weather tends to be, well, monstrous enough to swat planes from the sky.
Fortunately, sf stories - at least the ones I'd rather read - don't end along the lines of "and it was impossible. The end." Susan's solution is instead to custom-build a research aircraft, the titular Funnel Hawk or X-WX, a sleek and sophisticated craft that appears in all its glory on the cover of the June 1990 Analog, built "using graduate student slave labor and computer time bonus bogus bucks." Though Susan and her crew manage to get their plane built, that's perhaps the easiest thing they had to deal with.
Aside from the climax, "Funnel Hawk" is not so much about human vs. nature as human vs. bureaucracy (though the case could be made that bureaucracy just represents a different force of nature). First it's a constant struggle to get the plane built, and even once that's accomplished it's an even greater struggle to use it for what it was built for. I know that Tom Ligon has written other things which include elevatied safety-consciousness and its negative effects on society, and I see some of that in "Funnel Hawk" as well.
I can't help but wonder what it would've been like to read this back in 1990, even if I was only seven years old then. The blockbuster success of Twister in 1996 left a deep imprint, and I can't help but compare the movie and the story. Nevertheless, those comparisons do raise points that might not have been thought of back in 1990, when "Funnel Hawk" first hit the streets. Though they're fundamentally about the same thing - storm chasers trying to use a sophisticated new method to gain valuable insight into tornadoes - they approach them through fundamentally different angles.
Twister was all about DOROTHY, an observatory in an oil drum based on the National Severe Storms Laboratory's TOtable Tornado Observatory, now in a museum. In "Funnel Hawk," NSSL gets its TOTO inside a tornado. "They found it three months later in the bottom of a cattle pond half a mile from where they planted it, its data destroyed."
"Funnel Hawk" is based on a harebrained idea that's brought to fruition. Twister didn't even extend the state of the art - by the time it came out, TOTO had been retired for nine years. I have to wonder if this reflects a certain conservatism in mainstream Hollywood productions, contrasted with a willingness to push the envelope in science fiction.
It'd certainly make sense, it would.
ANDREW'S RATING: 5/5, and better than Twister.
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