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'Weird' Timing As Air Museum Opens 40th Anniversary Exhibit About Deadly Tornado

At the New England Air Museum, a panel in the lobby exhibit about the 1979 tornado.
Kari Njiiri
At the New England Air Museum, a panel in the lobby exhibit about the 1979 tornado.

Forty years ago this month, the strongest tornado ever to hit Connecticut ripped through Windsor Locks and surrounding communities without warning. The F-4 storm occurred just before three o'clock in the afternoon on Wednesday, October 3rd, 1979.

The storm killed three people and injured some 500 more. It also caused more than $400 million in property damage, including almost half of the aircraft on display at what had been the Bradley Air Museum, a four-acre site next to Bradley Airport.

“Seventeen planes were destroyed outright,” said Nick Hurley, curator of the now renamed New England Air Museum. “The indoor hangar had its roof ripped off, which basically disqualified it as a museum building. So we were basically put out of business at that current spot.”

The museum reopened exactly two years after the storm, on a 56-acre site on the other side of the airport with more than 100 historic aircraft.

Earlier this month, the museum unveiled an exhibit to commemorate the tornado's anniversary.

“We have dozens and dozens of photos of the damage because we had to document the damage to our museum, but we also wanted to tell the whole story of coming back and rebuilding as well,” Hurley said. “And that recovery is a huge part of our story, both for the museum and for Windsor Locks and all of the communities that were affected.”

Tornadoes are relatively rare in Connecticut, but they're not unheard of. There have been more than 100 tornadoes in the state in modern history, but the 1979 storm was particularly devastating.

“So this one is infamous for a lot of different reasons. One was the severity. The other one was how late in the year it occurred,” Hurley said. “It was also very short-lived. It was on the ground for less than 10 minutes and its path was only about 11 miles long. So it spawned very quickly. It came through, it did a lot of damage and then it basically disappeared.”

The tornado also hit with very little notice. While the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning, Hurley said, there was no mention of tornadoes.

“It was, from a meteorological standpoint, a very, very unique weather event," he said. "And because the rain was so heavy and the clouds were so low and fast moving, the funnel cloud was basically impossible to spot until it was right on top of something.”

That could be one reason Hurley could find no photos of the tornado.

“Particularly because it was 1979 and, you know, this was before cell phones,” he said. “So I haven't been able to find any visual evidence of it.”

But plenty of people have “very vivid memories” of the storm, Hurley said. As part of the exhibit, they’re asked to write down their stories and add them to the wall.

“And once they've reached the end of the exhibit and they have a sense of all the rebuilding that we did, now they can go into the exhibit hangars and see some of these aircraft that survived the tornado in their former glory,” he said.

The anniversary of the tornado earlier this month came a day after an even more deadly incident at Bradley Airport. A vintage World War II bomber crashed with 13 people aboard, killing seven.

While the museum was not directly involved with the event, Hurley said it shares a mission with the Collings Foundation, the owner of the B-17 that crashed.

“Over the decades, we've established and sort of maintained a professional relationship with them, knowing who's around and who's up there,” he said. “And it was just…terrible to hear of that and to have it occur so close to home. It was weird, the timing of it. You really, you know, don't quite know what to say.”

The exhibit, "Eight Minutes, Bradley Air Museum and the Windsor Locks Tornado of 1979," runs through next June.

Kari Njiiri is a senior reporter and longtime host and producer of "Jazz Safari," a musical journey through the jazz world and beyond, broadcast Saturday nights on NEPM Radio. He's also the local host of NPR’s "All Things Considered."
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