Join ADAMember Log In

Dentist weathers career change

Perkiomenville, Pa.—When injuries sustained in a pair of auto accidents forced Dr. Thomas A. Howley to retire from dental practice, he took a path that few would consider: chasing tornadoes and dangerous storms.

Since 2001, Dr. Howley has chased storms throughout Tornado Alley, from Oklahoma City northward to Rapid City, S.D., and into Canada. He works as a guide for a Texas-based extreme vacation company, aptly named Silver Lining Tours. For more than 80 days from April through July of this year, Dr. Howley witnessed 77 tornadoes on seven weeklong and 10-day tours. He logs between 30,000-40,000 miles of travel each season and has seen tornadoes that range from tiny to almost two miles across.

"I've always been interested in tornadoes, and for years I tried to get storm chasers to take me along but no one would do it," said Dr. Howley. "Then the movie 'Twister' came out [in 1996] and all of a sudden storm-chasing tour companies started popping up."

He chose to work with Silver Lining Tours ( because its co-owner and tour director Roger Hill is renowned in the storm-chasing world.

"Anyone in the chasing world knows Roger," he said, "and if you're serious about this you definitely want to do it with the best in the business."

One of the 2010 tours Dr. Howley and Mr. Hill led was featured in August on ABC's "Nightline" as reporter Eric Hong joined a group of thrill seeking storm chasers. (See the video online at Dr. Howley is wearing a blue shirt in several shots and is also the one driving the van as Mr. Hill navigates and tracks storms on a laptop from the front passenger seat.)

The group—experiencing a typical storm-chasing vacation—spent 10 long days traveling 400-700 miles a day in vans equipped with state-of-the-art storm tracking technology for finding and safely navigating storms and sharing data with the National Weather Service; eating fast food on the run on "good days" (days with stormy weather); and relaxing on "bad days" (days with fair weather). This particular tour wound through North and South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin in search of violent weather and adventure, seeing towering twisters and riding through battering hail, driving rains and dangerous winds.

"With all our equipment, we are safer than the other folks near the storms and we are quite good at what we do," Dr. Howley said. "Our vans have dents in them from hail storms. I've seen hail the size of grapefruits. And we generally end up with a few broken windshields every year, but we emphasize safety by approaching the storm from a safe vantage point and getting out of the way in plenty of time. It can be absolutely beautiful if you know where to go, what angle to be at and where you're safe."

Now the executive director of the Montgomery Bucks Dental Society, the 55-year-old Dr. Howley said a car accident sidelined him more than a decade ago. After several surgeries and rehab stints, the doctors told him he would not be able to return to dental practice.

"But I didn't believe them," he said. "I was going to prove them wrong. And then I was in another accident. Your life can change pretty much in an instant through no fault of your own. I loved being a dentist. I was good at it. I enjoyed it. I would still be a dentist if I could. But the one bright spot was that having to retire gave me the opportunity to do some storm chasing."

During his dental career, Dr. Howley was also active in organized dentistry, serving on the standing committee for the ADA Continuing Education Recognition Program and holding most constituent and component offices in the Academy of General Dentistry and serving as AGD’s national president in 2004-2005.

"That experience serves me well in my role as executive director," he said. "And I feel that as a retired dentist with other interests I can offer some balance between the issues dentists face in their practices and in their lives as well."

Over the years, Dr. Howley has collected hundreds of tornado videos and books and owns one of the best tornado book collections in the world.

"In 1887, John P. Finley wrote the first book devoted to the study of tornadoes," Dr. Howley said. "I was able to acquire a first edition copy signed by the author, but when I received it and read the inscription Mr. Finley wrote on May 11, 1887, I realized it was the first copy of his book ever sold. That was really exciting."

Dr. Howley is already looking forward to the 2011 season. "I will continue to do it as long as it's fun," he said.

Dr. Thomas A. Howley pauses for a photo in front of a spectacular tornado
Tornado Alley: Dr. Thomas A. Howley pauses for a photo in front of a spectacular tornado May 31 in Campo, Colo. He retired from dentistry because of a disability and now is a storm chaser.