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|2007-2009 Chase Vehicle|
|Saturday, 03 April 2010 20:34|
This was my primary chase vehicle for 2007-2009. I probably could have gotten another year or two at least out of it, but it was totaled out by the explosion I witnessed in Lamesa, TX when a piece of metal took out part of the front end. Due to that it was prematurely retired.
This was my private vehicle, even though it bears the markings of the TV station, since I chase for them. We use this vehicle 90% of the time, and the rest of the time we use my chase partner, Graham Butler's vehicle.
2007 marked a change in my choice of chase vehicle. In the past have been fond of using Ford Windstar minivans. Minivans in general provide a good balance of the needed interior space, passenger capacity and roof space, balanced with acceptable gas mileage. They are a good functional vehicle, despite their common "soccer mom" stigma.. I loved the Windstars, and they served me well. However in 2007 I had a great opportunity to get a low mileage ex-rental vehicle that was a 2004 Pontiac Montana. I liked the style (as far as minivans go) and it had a bit more interior room and roof space than the Windstars had. This vehicle had very low mileage for it's age and looked brand new inside and out. Rental vehicles are often strictly maintained and cleaned very often. Being a larger vehicle, it wasn't rented out as much as some of the cars are. I am very pleased with it and it has performed flawlessly so far. I like it so much I have decided it's replacement will be the SV6 model, which is all wheel drive, and the styling on the newer models more resembles an SUV.
A couple of weeks of hard labor went in to getting this vehicle converted over for storm chasing. At the expense of missing a couple of tornadoes nearby as well! But, it was worth it in the end, as taking time to do it right ensures you have no problems down the road.
We are often asked about the array of things that are mounted on top of the vehicle. It of course looks odd to the casual observer, but everything up there serves a purpose. Aside from the very prominent lightbar that serves dual functionality as both safety warning and flood lighting, there are a number of antennas. Antennas which provide various communications and reception, such as XM Satellite radio and radar data, cellular data, radio scanners, CB radio and ham radio as well as an omni directional TV antenna. In addition to the antennas, there are Davis Weather Instruments mounted on the roof to provide wind information as well as pressure and moisture information. The anemometer is mounted on a specially designed mount that allows us to collapse it down in the event we need the clearance, or during times we are not chasing.
The lightbar is a Code 3 MX7000 which was chosen for it's dual deck capability. I modified it by removing the rotator lights and incorporating 10 amber strobe lights from a Federal Signal Jetstrobe lightbar. The lower deck is designed solely to provide bright white light when we may need it at night, whether out on dark country roads or if we find ourselves in an area without power. They also provide decent short range light for video shooting. There are two "alley" lights that are on each end of the lightbar giving 110 watts of light on either side. On the front of the lightbar there are a total of 6 lights the provide front and 45 degree lightning for a total of 330 watts of light! Along the roof rails are mounted two (per side) 55 watt flood lights as well. Another pair of 110w flood lights are mounted under the back bumper on the trailer hitch. Needless to say these can draw significant amperage, but the stock alternator on the Montana can handle it as long as all lights aren't activated at once, which there really is never an occasion to do so. All of the lights are controlled by a custom switch panel I incorporated in the stock overhead console.
There are also amber strobe lights in each of the rear turn signals as well. The past chase vehicle had an amber arrowstick bar. This was added due to the fact that sometimes when we are pulled over, some people are scared to pass, not sure why we are stopped. The old arrowstick was halogen, which drew significant amps. I elected on this vehicle to wait on that and will be constructing a custom build arrowstick from amber LIN3 LED lights, which will draw a very small amount of power.
Inside the cockpit is where everything comes together, and essentially focuses as a mobile office for storm chasing. A variety of electronic gadgets are used to enhance the accuracy and safety of our storm chasing activities, as well as to enable us to edit video and send it to clients from anywhere we might be. We are also now able to stream LIVE video from the chase. In the past, I have always mounted a build in PC into a center console to handle the bulk of things, and then later used a laptop as a backup system. That allowed for the most cost effective upgradability in the past. Now, laptops now have come along to the point where they can affordably be replaced with newer ones every couple of years, and have all the features and horsepower we need, therefore I am no longer building built in PCs in the chase vehicles. The current laptop being used in this vehicle is an HP Pavilion DV9610 (upgraded since these photos were taken), featuring an dual core AMD processor, 4 gigs of ram, 200 gig hard drive as well as a card reader that is very handy for the various digital cameras we have, as well as the all important USB 2.0 and Firewire ports for video capture. The laptop is mounted on a custom made articulating arm assembly I purchased from a seller on eBay. It was a fraction of the cost of the more popular Jotto desk, with most of the functionality.
While the laptop server as the hub of activity, providing data, GPS mapping as well as video editing abilities, we also have a variety of other useful equipment. We have a dedicated Sony MiniDV camera (upgraded since these photos were taken) on the dash that serves as our live streaming camera. This is mounted to the dash with a RAM mount, which has proven itself very useful over the years! Also on the dash is where the GPS receive sits, as well as speaker monitors for the various radios, 2 speaker on either side. (The GPS receiver has also been upgraded since these photos were taken.)
The custom build center console ties everything together allowing for a convenient mounting point for 2 scanners, a Radio Shack and a Uniden Bearcat, along with a Cobra 29LTDWX CB radio and the brain of the Davis Instruments weather station mounted on top. A new ham radio will soon be mounted on the front edge of the overhead console. Inside the console houses all of the relays (over 15 of them) and power blocks for the secondary electrical system which powers everything. Most of the radios are powered by 12V DC, however the laptop and most of our camera chargers are powered by 110V AC power. This requires a 500watt DC to AC power inverter which is direct wired to the battery and located under the passenger seat. A surge protective power strip is then mounted to the rear of the console which makes a convenient place to plug in to 110V AC power at any time. I also added two extra 12v accessory outlets to the rear of the console as well as two on the passenger side of the front of the console. All of the added items to this vehicle are tied in electrically inside the front of this console where an array of fuses, buss blocks and relays keeps things functional and organized.
This van is equipped to seat 8 passengers, with the bucket seats across the middle. We elected to remove the center seat to place the all important ice cooler! We carry along plenty of drinks for the trip, and snacks as well. This cuts down our eating expenses on the road, and allows us to offer a cold drink to other chasers or any storm victims we happen to come across. You can also see the important map book bag. With the use of GPS mapping we don't use these as much as we used to, but they are still carried and do serve on occasion. In a pinch we can lay down both the rear and middle seats and inflate a queen sized camping mattress on top of them and take a good rest on particularly long trips if we aren't inclined to get a motel room, or just want to cut back on expenses.
We often lay out camera tripods in the back seat, as the van is wide enough we can lay them there with the legs extended during the chase for quick retrieval. Behind the back seat is a container that contains various things like a set of tools, tire repair stuff, glass cleaning supplies, jumper cables, fire extinguisher and things like that for emergencies. This vehicle is very well modified and suites it's purpose well.
As a final note, just for any less than honest people that may be getting any ideas, most of the electronics that aren't permanently mounted are removed after the chase. The radios that are permanently mounted would take a great deal of time to remove, and the entire vehicle is protected by a state of the art VIPER alarm system. If that isn't enough to deter you I can call on my friends Smith & Wesson for help if needed. Respect other's property! :)