The eyes of Hurricane Bob Storm chaser: Meteorologist Bob Sheets has flown into 200 storms and come out with the makings of an IMAX film.

November 03, 1995|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,SUN STAFF

Bob Sheets is the man at the center of the storm and the man at the center of "Stormchasers," the IMAX film opening at the Maryland Science Center today.

He recalls that in 1965, he looked at a senior meteorologist, a man in his mid-50s, and concluded: "Gee, I'm just in my 20s. If an old guy like that can do it, so can I."

That was shortly after Dr. Sheets had joined the National Hurricane Research Laboratory, and he'd just been invited to fly into a storm named Betsy.

"I didn't even know I was going to be flying planes into hurricanes," he laughs. Now in his mid-50s himself, recently retired as the Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's senior hurricane expert, the scientist went on to penetrate the eyes of hurricanes more than 200 times.

One of his trips -- into Hurricane Emily in 1993 -- forms a major segment of "Stormchasers," which will have a seven-month run at the Maryland Science Center's IMAX Theater.

"It's not as dangerous as most people think it is," says Dr. Sheets. But he notes in an interview that one research aircraft has been lost in an Atlantic hurricane, in 1954's Janet, and two were lost studying Pacific cyclones in the 1960s.

In the film, viewers seem to sit behind the flight crew of a four-engine plane as it rocks and rolls through dense clouds before punching into the center of the whirling storm, and a crew member exclaims, "It's just so peaceful inside."

Emily took a bead on the Outer Banks of North Carolina -- and also threatened Maryland's coastline -- but as the film documents, Dr. Sheets and his crew predicted it would miss the coast and advised against a full-scale evacuation.

The hurricane expert was a guest speaker earlier this week at a screening of the film. He says he hopes viewers come away with an appreciation of the power of severe storms and the need to take precautions when they threaten.

The well-timed film -- it arrives near the end of a year in which 11 tropical storms became hurricanes -- is a production of the Museum Film Network, of which the Maryland center is a member. It also includes segments on thunderstorms, the monsoons of India and of the "Tornado Alley" area of the American Midwest.

In the latter segment, viewers roll across the flatlands with a tornado-hunting crew from the University of Oklahoma, led by scientist Howie Bluestein. They set up gear under ominous clouds and record the towering approach of a funnel cloud in Kansas.

Perhaps because of the dangers, however, this storm scene ends somewhat anti-climactically. Viewers are told the storm broke up as quickly as it formed, yet the IMAX footage does not show the end of the storm.

Indeed, storm footage in the hurricane and monsoon portions of the film also seems less powerful than might be expected from the large-format IMAX process.

What does evoke awe are the aftermath scenes of homes washed into the ocean and neighborhoods razed by wind and water.

Viewers also gain a sense of what Dr. Sheets calls "the most effective warning system in the world" for hurricanes, as television reporters are seen photographing the forecasters at work at the hurricane center.

Dr. Sheets says sharing information immediately with the news media is a key part of the early warning system that has sharply reduced the death toll of hurricanes.

Viewers also learn that Dr. Sheets began keeping, early in his career, a log that chronicles the name, age and cause of death of each victim of a hurricane in this country.

As he says in the film, "I want to make sure that we never forget we're talking about people's lives."


Where IMAX Theater, MAryland Science Center

When noon, 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays; on the hour 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; through July 2.

Admission With center admisssion, $8.50 adults, $6.50 children (4-17), senior citizens and military personnel

9- Call: (410) 685-5225; TDD, (410) 962-0223

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