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West Swan Willy Willy: Friday 29th November 1996
by Ira Fehlberg

On the 29th of November 1996 a Willy Willy wound its way down Victoria St in the outer Perth suburb of West Swan. Taking the roof off one house in Tomlin St with it. It struck at around 1:45pm and the track length was about 700 meters. There is no rating system for Willy Willies but this is about as strong as they get. The roof was not a flat roof but a gabled one. The wind speed required to lift a roof like this off is certainly not weak. The first person to see the Willy Willy was a man working on his broken down car on West Swan rd. He saw it forming in the paddock and then cross the road. He said he thought nothing of it until he heard a large explosion. He ran up to where he thought the sound had come from to see if anyone was hurt and was surprised to find out that the Willy Willy had done so much damage. "It was only quite small when I saw it" he said. Barbara Tuckwell of Middle Swan road was driving along near the end of Victoria St near West Swan rd when the Willy Willy passed over her car . She said that "I just wound the window up and drove through it. It wasn't very strong, and I really didn't think any thing of it". She estimated it at this stage as being only about 5 meters across and around 5 meters high. She also told me that it was moving quite rapidly compared to other smaller ones she remembers seeing. It seems that they get a few in this area as all the people I spoke to said that they have seen them from time to time in the area.

Most of the houses on Victoria St. have large blocks as many people in this area keep horses, the Willy Willy seems to have moved up the street in the middle of all the houses dodging them as it made several left and right turns to stay in the open paddocks. None of these houses had any sort of damage. Bonnie Tuckwell also of Middle Swan rd was outside her house spaying for weeds when she saw it coming up the middle of the blocks. By this time it had grown in size to be nearly as wide as a house and around 30-40 meters high. She described it as "moving very rapidly and snaking around. As it passed me it didn't really seem that strong, but then it really seemed to whip up as it neared the Drews home". The Willy Willy crossed the road and headed up the side of Murray and Melissa Drew's block. Mrs Tuckwell said that she thought it would just pass down the side of the house, but that it then "turned quickly towards the house and hit it from the side and towards the back". Mr Drew had been outside working on his tractor when he and his wife decided to go in and have some lunch. Mr. Drew said the seabreeze was in at the time and the wind was southerly. He had remembered this because he had been shifting dirt and it was blowing away from the house. As he sat down at the table inside he said he noticed that an easterly wind had picked up, he said to his wife, "boy that easterly has really whipped up all of a sudden, you'd better shut that door so as all the dirt doesn't blow in". Mrs. Drew walked to the back door and by the time she got there the breeze had become very fresh. It was then that the Willy Willy hit. Mr. Drew said " it hit with tremendous force, the whole house was shaking. My wife was standing at the back door and I shouted to her, get away, its a bloody cyclone, I knew that's not what it was but I didn't know what to call it. Then the whole roof lifted up and it was flapping around, we could see outside through the hole. I then saw this thing in the back yard and it moved off towards the prison. The whole thing only lasted about 10 seconds. We went to the back door and looked out. As we looked up we could see tin and stuff flying around, all the pink batts from out of our ceiling were going upwards in a spiralling motion. We watched them until they went so high that they were out of sight. We were expecting to go outside and find the whole neighbourhood effected by it". I later found several of these batts 2 kilometres away down by the river. Admittedly these are only pink batts but this does show evidence of considerable updrafts present.

Mrs Tuckwell watching from across the street said that as it hit the Drews house " it peeled the roof open and pulled it up, Tin and wood was flying around in the air about 30-40 meters high ". Most of the roof was dumped in the yard to the side of the house however there is not enough tin and wood there to fill the hole the Willy Willy left, where the rest of the tin is, is a mystery. It also caused quite a stir with the Police as the Drews property backs onto a womenís prison. Many people heard the roof coming off and said it sounded like an explosion. Prison officials and Police thought that someone had bombed the Jail.

The Drews house received extensive damage, almost half of the roof has been removed. Several of the rooms have large holes from where the remaining roof has been dumped back down with rafters and vents punching through the ceiling. The Willy Willy had approached the house directly from the west so the easterly that the Drews felt would have been the hot air being drawn in to feed the Willy Willy.

Of the four witnesses all them said that it looked like a Willy Willy and identified it as one by some photos I took with me of Tornadoes and Willy Willies. No body reported seeing any parent cloud or funnel. The only clouds around on the day was all high level cirrus. However Mr Drew was the person with the best view as he saw it from only a few meters away. His description of it to me is very interesting. As soon as I showed him a picture of a tornado he said "yep thatís it", I said are you sure it didn't look like this, pointing to a picture of a Willy Willy he said, "nope it had all that stuff around the outside ( the debris ) it was weird, I could kind of see through it and in the middle it had a funnel in it, it was perfectly symmetrical, kind of a wedge shape". remembering that this description comes from a man who has never seen a Tornado or has any knowledge of them I found this very interesting. I quizzed him further but he was absolutely adamant that it had a funnel at the base inside of the debris cloud. From this I believe that a few questions must be posed. We know that the dry conditions in which Willy Willies form is not conducive to condensation funnels. But was what Mr Drew saw a small funnel forming from the slightly higher humidity level closer to the earthís surface? Certainly Willy Willies that form over water have plenty of water vapour readily available and at times form a condensation funnel. These are recorded as fair weather waterspouts. Vortices have been seen to occur on the oceans surface before any funnel is seen above. They have also been observed with a funnel but no parent cloud. We know that waterspouts are just weak tornadoes over water. So if conditions were inductive to condensation would we see a funnel above Willy Willies? There is no doubt that the rising air currents were present. Condensation funnels have been know to occur from only cumulus congestus clouds and research has shown that if a funnel extends approximately one third of the distance from the cloud base to the ground a small vortex is usually apparent on the ground. It certainly makes me wonder just how many Willy Willies that occur on days of cumulus congestus are really just weak Tornadoes. I see that the only real difference between them is that Tornadoes begin their lives as vortices in a cloud and make their way downwards, Willy Willies however are somehow set in motion by rising air. But the air inside them both is rising and the end result is the same. The only real difference being the wind speeds and obviously the size. Another thing about this Willy Willy that makes me wonder is that of the speed and of the "snaking around". All the witness's I spoke to said that it was moving "quite fast". I wouldn't say that Willy Willies I have seen were moving quite fast. Bonnie Tuckwell added that it was "snaking around, with the bottom snaking out and then the top following". Mmm well it's certainly food for thought.


Damage inside the Drews house. Photo by Ira Fehlberg


Document: 9611-03.htm
Updated: 7th April, 2004
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