by Rob Morris
May 04, 2012
When severe weather threatens the skies over Oklahoma, most pilots give the gathering storm a wide berth.
Moore resident Jon Welsh does exactly the opposite. And he calls it his dream job.
“I look at myself as a public servant,” Welsh says. “By showing the storm, it means I can give people time to take cover if they need. Or maybe you’ll see that you’re clear of the storm. It’s all about keeping people safe.”
While flying a helicopter near a raging thunderstorm that could give birth to a deadly tornado at any moment might seem a bit insane, Welsh makes it clear that he’s not crazy.
“We have a great team of meteorologists who puts us in the ‘safe spot’ of the storm, if you will,” he said.
According the chopper veteran, that safe spot is typically on the south side of the storm.
“Where you don’t want to be is on the east side of the storm,” Welsh said. “That’s where you’re going to get the heavy rain and hail.”
Welsh said he’d also rather be in Chopper 4 than on the ground chasing storms.
“The benefit of flying, as opposed to being one of the storm chasers on the ground, is that they’re restricted by roads. Luckily for us, we don’t have any roads to worry about,” Welsh said.
While he has the advantage of being able to travel in a straight line from Point A to Point B, Welsh said he does have to keep a careful eye out for structures.
“In Woodward we had to deal with the windmill farms that are up there. So things like that give you areas that you have to dodge,” Welsh said.
There’s also the challenge of balancing the large number of voices competing for his attention over the chopper’s headset. Air traffic control, approach, the police ’copter pilot, other news pilots in the area and voices from the news station are often talking over each other, making it difficult to know which one to listen to at any given moment.
“It sounds like you’re a crazy person, since there are a lot of voices going on in your head. But after a while, you figure out which ones are the tower and which ones are something else,” he said.
Welsh, who is originally from Durant, learned to fly as a part of his National Guard service. He joined the Guard in 2000 as a way to pay for college and ended up being bitten by the flying bug. He logged over 800 hours in the air over Iraq flying Black Hawks.
“I was a Black Hawk pilot and instructor prior to coming here and I always wanted to fly, but I wanted to stay in Oklahoma. So obviously I was going to fly either for an EMS or a news company.”
As to the differences between piloting one of the military’s big Black Hawks as compared with Chopper 4, Welsh says the difference is like driving a Cadillac versus a sports car.
“They’re both really nice. They’re both powerful. But one is a lot more agile than the other,” he said.
Welsh’s wife says she doesn’t get nervous watching her husband steer that airborne sports car into the teeth of Oklahoma’s most dangerous storms.
“I’m proud of him,” says Alison Welsh. “I’m usually glued to the TV and excited to see what he’s doing. But I don’t get nervous unless the weather gets close to us.”
Jon and Alison have a daughter named Morgan. The family chose to live in Moore because they were looking for a place with great schools that wasn’t too big, but was still close to a big city.
“Moore is a big town, but it still has that small-town feel,” Alison said. “We have great neighbors. We live in a great community and our daughter goes to a great school. We absolutely love it here.”
John agrees. “You come home and you’re like ‘Ahhhh, this is my neighborhood.’ Also the police and fire services are a big plus because they’re able to get to your home in just a few minutes as opposed to a lot longer response time in other places. If something happens, I want somebody to be there as quick as they can. And Moore provides that.”