On a September night in 1988, Hurricane Gilbert rampaged across Jamaica as a Category-5 storm headed toward Mexico and possibly the United States.

Bob Sheets, director of the National Hurricane Center at the time, recalls in an email that he had gone home to catch a little sleep and returned early the next morning, Sept. 13, to find himself in the middle of a dispute between the United States and the Soviet Union over “hurricane hunters” flying into Gilbert.

“We had gone overnight without any hurricane hunter flights into the storm,” Sheets said, because Soviet aircraft flying out of Cuba had apparently registered flight plans with the Houston Federal Aviation Administration Center.

John Pavone, who was then and still is chief aerial reconnaissance coordination all hurricanes (CARCAH) at the Hurricane Center, told Sheets that the U.S. Air Force would not fly into the hurricane until they knew where the Soviet aircraft were. The FAA apparently told them that they could go in on their own but that it could not “block out” the storm area for them.

“John told me this while I was sitting at the TV briefing desk and had been doing updates (for the news media),” Sheets said in his email. Spencer Christian of ABC’s “Good Morning America” was there and overheard the conversation.

“He asked me if he could ask me about that on the air. I hesitated but decided to go ahead and let him ask the question. I responded on-air that we were having some difficulty getting the Air Force reconnaissance flight into the storm because apparently a Soviet research aircraft flying out of Cuba had indicated that they planned to fly into the hurricane that day.

“Within about 10 minutes of that broadcast, the secretary of commerce was involved and a senator from Texas (I do not remember his name) was up in arms.”

Sheets says that, in addition to the Air Force WC-130 in the storm, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was planning to fly one of its WP-3 hurricane hunter airplanes into Gilbert for research, which “potentially put Air Force, NOAA and Soviet aircraft in the storm at the same time.”

Sheets recalls that the problem was solved, at least for that day, when Howard Tichnor, the chief pilot of the NOAA WP-3, made radio contact with the Soviet aircraft (they routinely did that with the Air Force) and they worked out a plan that satisfied everyone and all flights were made successfully. Essentially the plan had the three airplanes staying at different altitudes.

In his email recalling that day’s events Sheets said: “The end result of all of this was that we had no recon for some 12 hours as Hurricane Gilbert was moving toward and into the Gulf of Mexico after devastating Jamaica as the strongest hurricane of record at that time and threatening northern Mexico and south Texas.”

In fact, at 9:53 p.m. Eastern on Sept. 13, when a NOAA P-3 finally penetrated the monster hurricane’s eye, it recorded a low pressure of 888 millibars (26.22 inches of mercury), the lowest-ever pressure recorded up that time in an Atlantic hurricane.

(That record lasted until Oct. 19, 2005, when a hurricane hunter airplane measured a pressure of 882 millibars in Hurricane Wilma over the Caribbean Sea southeast of the Yucatan Peninsula)

As it turned out, the United States escaped most of Gilbert’s fury. It hit the Yucatan Peninsula as a Category-5 storm, weakened as it crossed the peninsula to hit Mexico’s mainland as a Category-2 hurricane near the town of La Pesca, Mexico, 60 miles south of the U.S. border. After moving inland, Gilbert continued weakening as it crossed Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri with flooding rain.

Flight flap led U.S and Soviet scientists to get together

Sheets says the United States asked the World Meteorological Organization to put an item on its next hurricane meeting requesting that all potential hurricane flights be coordinated through CARCAH at the Hurricane Center to avoid such problems in the future.

“The Cubans adamantly stated they would fly anytime anywhere without any such coordination and would not endorse such an item in our plan,” Sheets recalls. “We, of course, knew it was Soviet aircraft, not Cuban. I withdrew the agenda item. We then arranged a conference in Russia with the Soviet laboratory that controlled those aircraft.”

Peter Black, a now-retired NOAA hurricane researcher and one of the U.S. scientists who attended this meeting, says the resulting U.S.-Soviet agreement “gave priority to U.S. Air Force flights since they were operational, and secondary priority to Soviet flights, since they were research.”

He says the United States and the Soviets signed an agreement “in which we would fly on each other’s aircraft and attend each other’s tropical cyclone meetings.”

“We never flew together, but I did attend two Soviet-Cuba tropical cyclone meetings in Moscow and Bob [Sheets] attended one,” Black says. “The Russian delegation of six scientists then attended our American Meteorological Society Hurricane Conference in Miami in 1991, with me as their host. They presented at least one paper, and then sadly returned to Moscow saying that this would never happen again, which it did not as the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1992 and their airborne hurricane and typhoon program came to an end.”

Unknown to the United States before Gilbert, Russian airplanes had flown out of Cuba into Hurricane Emily in 1987, Hurricane Floyd and Tropical Storm Chris the month before Gilbert.

After Gilbert in 1988, the Russians flew into Hurricanes Gabrielle and Hugo, Tropical Storm Iris and Hurricane Jerry in 1989. In 1990, they flew into Hurricane Klaus and Tropical Storm Marco.

The Russians also flew into several Pacific Ocean typhoons out of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (commonly called North Vietnam in the United States) from 1984 until 1990. They didn’t risk conflicts with U.S. hurricane hunters; the United States had ended typhoon flights in 1987.

Black says that “at the end of 1990, if you had asked, Soviet tropical cyclone research would have continued for the foreseeable future. Under Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (government restructuring), exchanges were made between the U.S. National Hurricane Center and Russian scientists.”

Hugh Willoughby, the now-retired director of NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division, was aboard the NOAA WP-3 that measured Gilbert’s record low pressure. He recalls meeting the Russian meteorologist who was the Soviet equivalent of the “flight director” at an international tropical cyclone meeting in Bangkok three years before Gilbert. The flight director is a meteorologist who is in charge of the meteorological aspects of a flight, telling the pilots what parts of the storm to investigate and helping them avoid the worst turbulence.

The Russian “was having big problems with how to fly into a tropical cyclone safety and just convincing the pilots that they could do it and live,” Willoughby said. “Although it was Cold War time I decided to explain how we do (storm) penetrations. My military and ex-military colleagues thought I was not being a ‘good American’, and I took a lot of heat for talking with him.”

“As a footnote,” Willoughby says, “when in the early 1990s all of the folks who had complained about my loyalty in Bangkok got invited to Moscow, nobody thought to include me even though I’d gone out on limb to keep the Russians from taking the big drink.”

Speaking of Gilbert, Willoughby, recalls it as “kinda cool, all of us in the eye together, sort of pre-glasnost.”

Black said that after the U.S. scientists had met their Russian counterparts, one of the Russians commented that they and the Americans were “’hurricane brothers.’ Here our governments were trying to out-duel each other near the end of the Cold War, and (the Soviet government) likely had more sinister ideas in mind about how to use our collaboration for further expansion in the Americas.”

Black says, “In the midst of all that, with the Soviet Union soon to come crashing down, here we were as individuals forming lasting friendships.”

He says two of the Russian scientists immigrated to the U.S. to continue their careers: “The collaborative program was used as a vehicle to help them develop flourishing careers. Scientists both in Russia and here in U.S. were eager for this collaboration to move forward for science reasons, career reasons, and many other reasons, the last of which was any political gain.

“Our governments may have had other ideas, but I believe to this day, that amongst us scientists it was a pure quest for scientific truth in how hurricanes work. And we had some of the best instrumental tools in the world (hurricane hunter airplanes) during that era at our disposal to try to accomplish that. But it was not to be, and that is life.”

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