The National Weather Service said Thursday that it was likely a sudden “downburst” of heavy winds — and not a tornado — that caused a section of a hangar roof at the Warrenton-Fauquier Airport to tear off Wednesday night.
Around 5:45 p.m. Wednesday, Fauquier Fire and Rescue responded to a call from the airport director, Dave Darrah, who reported that a severe thunderstorm and possible tornado had ripped through the Warrenton-Fauquier Airport at about 5:30 p.m., according to Mike Guditus, emergency manager with the Fauquier County Fire Department.
Guditus told FauquierNow that Darrah said there was no emergency.
The wind gusts had caused about 300 feet of a hangar roof to blow off.
“There were two hangars involved, and the roof from one of the hangars that peeled off and landed on an airplane that was parked on the runway,” he said.
Darrah told WTOP that while damage assessments were ongoing, he expected the cost to top $1 million, in part because the airplane was hit by a 75-foot chunk of debris. The plane is the type often used by companies to take sky divers up.
News reports early Thursday stated a possible tornado had touched down and caused the roof to blow off.
But Austin Mansfield, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, told FauquierNow it was more likely that the damage was caused by a sudden “downburst” of strong winds.
“So you can easily have headwinds similar to that like an “F-scale tornado,” but it’s not gonna be a tornado. It’s more of a sudden downburst of winds that come straight down and then funnel out,” he said. “So that’s likely what happened at the airport. The wind got under the roof of that hangar and was able to lift the wind or lift the roof off of that hangar.”
Mansfield said the National Weather Service used an Automated Weather Observing System to capture data, but he noted the data was “very localized” and recorded wind speeds at just 31 knots or 35 miles per hour.
A building inspector on the scene filed a report late Wednesday and found no issues with the structural integrity of the hangar that could have caused the incident, but they were nonetheless skeptical that 31-knot wind gusts could have blown off the roof, according to Guditus.
Mansfield agreed that typically wind gusts below 60-80 miles per hour would not necessarily be enough to blow off a roof, but there are sometimes exceptions.
“But we also issued what we call an OutCast, and that gives you an idea that there may be storms that could produce for you 50 mile per hour winds,” he said. “And so we had an OutCast for that, because that still remains below severe criteria.”
“But going back and looking at all of our radar data … there was nothing that indicated there being a tornado,” Mansfield added.
Guditus said in addition to the roof being blown off one of the hangars, a separate hangar incurred some wind damage. A plane and transformer were also damaged. There were no injuries, fuel leaks or other hazards caused by the storm.
“To my knowledge, only that one aircraft was damaged, but there may be a follow up report on that,” Guditus said. “We secured the scene, turned it back over to the management of the airport and the building inspector officials and went about our business.”
The Warrenton-Fauquier Airport is a general aviation airport with a 5,000-foot runway. It is considered to be a “reliever airport” for the D.C. area, meaning some planes head there in order to avoid the busier, major airports such as Reagan National and Dulles International.