Interview with Napoleón Sergio Bravo Flores


Dr Taba recounts:

Chile has an area of 756 946 km2 and a population of almost 13 million. It is a long and narrow country, stretching south from latitude 17°30’ to the Antarctic territories. It is bounded on the north by Peru and Bolivia, on the long eastern border by Argentina and on the west by the Pacific Ocean. Chile’s topography is dominated by the Andes mountains, running down the entire length of the country. Many peaks are 4 000-5 000 m high and the highest is 6 880 m. Much of the north of the country is desert, while the green and fertile valleys of the central part produce fruit, vegetables and agricultural products—the wines and grapes from Chile are well-known the world over.

The capital city of Santiago was founded by the Spaniard Pedro de Valdivia in 1542. Today it is one of the most modern cities of South America and home to more than 4.5 million people. The University of Chile was founded there in 1842.


Napoleón Sergio Bravo Flores

Napoleón Sergio Bravo Flores

With a surface area of 1 250 000 km2, the Chilean Antarctic contains more than 30 million km3 of ice. Chile maintains a civilian village there, as well as three bases, a meteorological centre, a research centre and several refuges. The Chilean Government decided to expand its meteorological network by creating a new meteorological station in the Antarctic. A young meteorologist was designated by the Air Force to carry out this task. His name is Napoleon Sergio Bravo Flores, and he is our interviewee of this issue.

I met Napoleon Sergio Bravo Flores in 1967, when I went to Santiago to organize a regional training seminar, of which he was the honorary chairman. In those days, I was Chief of the newly created Training Section in the WMO Secretariat. That was the beginning of the period when WMO and its Secretariat made enormous efforts to assist developing nations to create and improve their meteorological training facilities. A number of unprecedented steps were taken in order to establish appropriate classification of meteorological personnel, prepare curricula, publish training manuals, etc. The organization of regional meteorological training seminars was one of those initiatives. The seminar in Santiago went well and Chile forged invaluable links with other Members of the Region. As a sign of recognition of my modest contribution to the WMO’s education and training activities and organization of the seminar, the Government of Chile awarded me the title Miembro Honoraris Causa de la Fuerza Aérea de Chile.

On the occasion of that first encounter with Bravo Flores 35 years ago, I was impressed by his personality, his organized way of working, his discipline, clarity of speech, and authority. He is extremely kind and friendly. I was happy to see him again on the occasion of this interview, which took place in Santiago de Chile in January 2002.

I wish to take this opportunity to thank my friend and former colleague, Eduardo Basso, who helped me in the preparatory stages of this interview. I am also grateful to General Hugo Oliva Haupt, Director of the National Meteorological Service and Permanent Representative of Chile with WMO, for providing the facilities for conducting the interview.

H.T. — Tell us about the date and place of your birth, your parents and where you spent the early years of your life.

N.S.B.F. — I was born on 30 January 1926 in the village of Putaendo, province of Aconcagua. The countryside has rich and fertile soil and a great variety of trees, vineyards, plantations and wheat. It is also the site of historical places such as Square de Putaendo where the army of General San Martin established outposts before continuing onwards to the Valley of Chacabuco in 1818. The first skirmish with the Spanish army took place in Las Coimas, a few kilometres from San Felipe, where a monument stands to commemorate the heroes. There was also a pluviometric station there, which, according to the Chilean Annual Meteorological records, was located at a height of 749 m with the coordinates of 32°, 39’S and 90°, 45’ W. My parents moved to Vina del Mar on the Pacific Coast and this is where my brothers and I went to primary and secondary school. I obtained my secondary school certificate in 1944 and went on to study for my Bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Chile.

H.T. — How did you become interested in meteorology?

N.S.B.F. — At secondary school, music lessons were part of the curriculum. I was not interested in singing, so my teacher used to send me to the library. I started reading a book about meteorology and found particularly interesting the chapter about sudden weather variations. From that day in 1939, meteorology and atmospheric variations became a main interest in my life.

H.T. — How did your military career begin?

N.S.B.F. — In 1945, I was accepted as a cadet in the Aviation School “Capitan Manuel Avalos Prado” of the Chilean Air Force. I obtained good marks in all subjects, including meteorology and, on 1 January 1947, became a sublieutenant in the Chilean Air Force. After that, I was seconded to the National Navy, where I followed a meteorological course at the National Meteorological Service. I was then assigned to Puerto Montt, for on-the-job training and, at the same time, to give meteorological courses to radio officers and observers. In July 1950, I obtained the title of Specialist in Meteorology in the Chilean Air Force.

Napoleón Sergio Bravo Flores in the antarctic base

Leaving for a one-year tour of duty to the Antarctic base “Presidente Gabriel González Videla” in 1952

H.T. — When did you first visit the Antarctic?

N.S.B.F. — My time in the Antarctic constitutes one of my best memories. In 1950, the Chilean authorities decided to set up a meteorological base in the Antarctic and that I should be part of that mission. The only way to get there was by boat through the Drake passage, which is well known for its adverse weather conditions. For the entire voyage of one and a half days, the boat shook violently and I was more than happy to reach our destination. I stayed three months at the Naval Base “Arturo Prat”. In 1952, I was sent back to the same base by the Chilean Air Force, serving as meteorological officer, as well as Second Officer in command of the Air Base “President Gabriel González Videla”. My main duty consisted of providing weather forecasts three times a day for the movement of oil barrels and operations related to naval safety. I was also responsible for making observations and following the changes of tides throughout the day and night. When I was returning to the base one night, I was chased by an angry sea elephant. I ran towards the base shouting for the gate to be opened. Fortunately, the gate opened before the sea elephant reached me. Some days later, I received the sad news that somebody from the Argentinean base “Almirante Brown”, had also been chased by a sea elephant; he was not so lucky, however, and was badly bitten.

H.T. — Tell us some more about the Antarctic and international activities there.

N.S.B.F. — The fifth largest continent and surrounded by ocean, 99 per cent of the Antarctic is buried under perpetual ice up to 4.5 km thick. It is 4 500 km across and has an area of 14 million km2. More than 90 per cent of all the ice and snow in the world is located in the Antarctic. In the vicinity of the South Pole, the temperature is –97°C and the fierce winds push the temperatures down even further, while, for nearly six months a year, the Sun does not rise above the horizon.The nearest mainland is the southern tip of South America, some 960 km away.

The International Geophysical Year ((IGY) 1 July 1957 to 31 December 1958) was a cooperative endeavour by scientists to improve their understanding of the Earth and its environment. Many of the field activities took place in the Antarctic, where 12 nations established some 60 research stations. As the end of the IGY approached, many of those nations sought to continue their activities. The matter was reviewed through the Special (now Scientific) Committee on Antarctic Research. In May 1958, the USA proposed a treaty that would set the continent aside solely for scientific purposes. The WMO Antarctic Activities Programme is designed to promote and coordinate meteorological programmes that are carried out in the Antarctic by nations and groups of nations and interacts with all WMO programmes. At present, some 79 stations operate under the Antarctic Regional Basic Synoptic Network. Three of these, “Presidente Eduardo Frei”, “Arturo Prat” and “Bernardo O’Higgins”, belong to Chile.

H.T. — It might be interesting for readers to know a little more about the beginnings of meteorology in Chile.

N.S.B.F. — Meteorology in Chile dates back to 1545, when Pedro de Valdivia in a letter to King Charles V, defined Chile’s climate as being similar to what it is today. In the 18th century, fascination with travel and nature attracted scientists of various nationalities to the coasts of Chile. Between the years 1830 and 1861, knowledge in both the physical and natural sciences increased, thanks to government interest and the presence of some distinguished foreign specialists. In October 1849, a North American team arrived in Santiago, headed by J.M. Gillis, an astronomer from the Washington Observatory. They stayed until 1852 and carried out valuable astronomical and meteorological observations. When they left, the State took over the team’s buildings, equipment and books: this was the basis on which the National Astronomical Observatory was founded on 17 August 1852 and rainfall in Santiago was measured for the first time in millimetres, using a raingauge. In the middle of June 1866, Luís Zegers installed a raingauge at the Quinta Normal Astronomical Observatory, where rainfall is still measured today—more than 100 years later—by the Directorate of Meteorology.

Appointment as Chief of the Meteorological Office of Chile

Appointment as Chief of the Meteorological Office of Chile on 22 September 1960

H.T. — When was the National Meteorological Service founded?

N.S.B.F. — The Meteorological Service was formed under the aegis of the National Astronomical Observatory. Meteorological observations started in November 1849 and continued until September 1857, when the Observatory was transferred to Quinta Normal. In 1870, the Santiago Observatory was extended to house a psychrometer and a maximum thermometer. The first Meteorological Service yearbook was published in 1870, covering observational data from 1869, and yearbooks have been published continuously ever since. It is interesting to note that the first meteorological yearbooks were sent to the Paris Geographical Exhibition in 1875 and won a prize. The Austrian Meteorological Society stated: “Chile’s meteorological yearbooks are the most detailed and complete work published by an American State to date”. On 26 March 1884, the Meteorological Service for Simultaneous Observation was founded. It was decided to observe physical processes in real-time and send the information via telegraph to a central collection point. This was the beginning of what was later called the Directorate of Meteorology. In 1928, the meteorological services were brought together to form a single official administrative body having the name of Meteorological Bureau of Chile under the responsibility of the Marine Ministry. In 1949, the Meteorological Bureau was transferred to the Chilean Air Force (Air Traffic Control). In 1973, it was renamed the Directorate of Meteorology for Chile, part of the General Administration for Civil Aviation. The State directs, controls and maintains the Service with a view to meeting the meteorological requirements relating to all national activities. The Service focuses on user requirements, including upgrading equipment and system technology and development processes.

H.T. — In 1955, you went to study at Chanute Air Force Base in the USA.

N.S.B.F. — That was an important period of my meteorological training. Our programme included theoretical and practical training in advance mathematics, physics, synoptic meteorology, climatology and meteorology of the upper atmosphere. Air Force officers from several countries were following the same course and the international atmosphere was in keeping with the spirit of the profession. I established friendships with several other meteorologists from Latin America, which lasted many years. I met up up with some of them later at meteorological meetings. I recall particularly Clodomir Padilha Alves da Silva who became Director of the National Meteorological Service of Brazil and the Permanent Representative of Brazil with WMO.

H.T. — What did you do next?

N.S.B.F. — Upon my return to Chile in 1956, I became a Group Captain and a member of the American Meteorological Society. In the Chilean Air Force, I was appointed as the first Chief of the Aeronautical Training Centre; at the same time, I became Chief of the Department of Personnel and Training within the Dirección de Tránsito Aéreo. For the next three years, my main responsibility was education and training at all levels and I conducted many training courses. I also followed another course at the US Air Force base Albrook Field in the Canal Zone, Panamá. The purpose was to familiarize myself with the methods of preparation and applications of a “classification system” with particular reference to the Chilean Air Force. This system had direct repercussions on the career development of Air Force personnel and its application required much attention.

At the fourth session of RA III in Quito

At the fourth session of RA III in Quito, Ecuador, October 1966

H.T. — When did you become Chief of the Meteorological Office?

N.S.B.F. — That was when I was promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader (1960). Consequently, I became the Permanent Representative of Chile with WMO (1960–1975). Another important event which occurred in parallel was approval by WMO and the United Nations Special Fund (later on United Nations Development Programme) of a project entitled “Expansion and improvement of the meteorological and hydrological network in Chile”. The project was executed by WMO and successfully completed in 1965; the Project Manager was Inocencio Font Tullot, The fundamental objectives were the establishment of a basic network of meteorological and hydrological stations and the training of personnel at all levels and categories. The aims were achieved and even surpassed. The network of stations set up is still functioning well and has played a fundamental role in the social and economic development of Chile. For example, the instrument and calibration laboratory is still in perfect shape and good working condition. Aside from its practical application, the project promoted the development of institutional sectors. A Coordination Committee was formed, in which I took part. Other participants were Enrique Garcia, Chief of Hydrology of the Directorate of Irrigation, and Eduardo Basso from the National Electric Company, Eduardo Basso, later directed similar projects in Central America and the Brazilian Amazon. Both Dr Font Tullot and Mr Basso went on to join the WMO Secretariat.

H.T. — When was the first time you attended a WMO Congress and what were your impressions?

N.S.B.F. — That was Fifth WMO Congress in 1967. What most impressed me was the number of participants—representatives of some 115 countries, if I remember correctly—and the presence of some of the giants of meteorology. A. Nyberg (Sweden)1 was re-elected as the President of WMO. Dr W.J. Gibbs (Australia)2 was elected First Vice-President; E.K. Fedorov (USSR)3 Second Vice-President and N.A. Akingbehin (Nigeria) Third Vice-President. All 14 members of the Executive Committee were people of excellent reputation, such as Azcarraga (Spain), Bessemoulin (France)4, Mason (United Kingdom)5, Süssenberger (Federal Republic of Germany)6, Taha (Egypt)7, Van Mieghem (Belgium) and White (USA)8. From South America, I remember Andrada (Argentina) and Marden dos Santos (Brazil). The IMO Lecture was given by Prof. E. Lorenz (USA), whom you have interviewed9. The topic of his lecture was “The nature and theory of the general circulation of the atmosphere”. I had, therefore, every reason to be impressed.

H.T. — What about the technical and scientific questions discussed during that session?

N.S.B.F. — To a newcomer like me, every issue discussed during that session was important. I had spent all my professional life in training and I was eager to learn. For the first time, I had an overview of the important issues. The interventions by some of those pioneers in meteorology were really illuminating. However, there were two items on the agenda which had particular importance for me and perhaps for most developing nations. One was technical cooperation and the other the promotion of meteorological training. As regards technical cooperation, I learned that nearly 100 countries had benefited from the assistance provided in one form or another under the UNDP. It was encouraging to note WMO’s increased investment in technical cooperation from one programme period to the other. For example, in 1953, WMO commenced with a share of 0.3 per cent of the total programme and at the time of my participation in Congress, it was 2.6 per cent.

Award of the highest distinction of the Chilean Air Force


Award of the highest distinction of the Chilean Air Force “Cruz al Mérito Aeronáutico” on 12 December 1992

As regards meteorological training, it is hardly necessary for me to make any remarks since you were the authority in the WMO Secretariat in this matter. An Executive Committee Panel of Experts on Meteorological Education and Training was established and new chairs of meteorology and new regional training centres were being set up. During the 1960s, the newly independent Member States required tremendous assistance in the field of meteorological education and training and it is my confirmed opinion that WMO and its Secretariat, under the guidance of D.A. Davies10, made every possible effort to assist Members.

H.T. — Did Congress discuss the subject of Antarctic meteorology—a subject close to your heart?

N.S.B.F. — The subject was discussed amid great disappointment that it had not been possible to establish a Standing Committee for the Antarctic as requested by the previous Congress. This was because there was no unanimous agreement among the Members which were signatories of the Antarctic Treaty. The Executive Committee had decided to establish an Executive Committee Working Group on Antarctic Meteorology and Congress asked EC to maintain it. In 1969, I was designated as a member of the Council of the Chilean Antarctic Institute. This Council was responsible for establishing Chilean Antarctic policy in the context of the Antarctic Treaty. My specific duty was coordination of the Antarctic stations of the Chilean Air Force. That was an added reason for my interest in participating in the discussions. Incidentally, I was a member of the Antarctic Meteorology Working Group and as such visited Australia in 1966 for the session of the Group. It was there that a recommendation was made to designate the Chilean Antarctic Air Base “Presidente Pedro Aguirre Cerda” one of the regional meteorological telecommunications centres for the Antarctic Peninsula.

H.T. — You became president of WMO Regional Association III (South America). Would you expand on that?

N.S.B.F. — A. Garcia (Ecuador) was elected president of the Region and I was elected vice-president by the fourth session of RA III in Quito in 1966. Four years later, in 1970, the fifth session of the Association took place in Bogotá and I was elected president. I followed carefully and with great interest the events taking place in the Region, in particular those which had relevance for the Education and Training Programme and the Technical Cooperation Programme. Many activities were initiated by the EC Panel of Experts on Meteorological Education and Training and most of the training projects were funded by the WMO Technical Cooperation Programme. Argentina was very active in training Class I meteorological personnel from the Region and a chair of meteorology was established at the University of Costa Rica. The Brazilian delegation informed the fifth session that the University of Brazil would admit all Class II candidates from the Region for Class I meteorological training. I informed the session that the Aeronautical Technical School of the Chilean Air Force, which was recognized as having university equivalence, was open to all students from Latin America. Likewise, Venezuela informed the session that its Central University offered opportunities for Class I training. You may recall that 1970 was designated “International Education Year” and WMO awarded 1 000 fellowships.

H.T. — In 1967, a Regional Training Seminar was held in Santiago. What can you tell us about it?

N.S.B.F. — The Regional Training Seminar for National Meteorological Instructors for Classes III and IV Meteorological Personnel, was held from 6 to 21 November 1967. A number of national instructors from various Latin American countries participated. The Director of the seminar was an expert from Canada; I was honorary chairman, and you, as Chief of the Training Section in the WMO Secretariat, were the representative of the Secretary-General. That was a new and unusual seminar. Each national instructor provided an account of the training methods in his country and the participants exchanged views and opinions about the merits or shortcomings of each system. The Director of the Seminar, who had considerable experience in the field, analysed the different viewpoints and produced a coordinated synthesis. One of the most important outcomes was the contacts between the participants.

With Eduardo Basso and Inocencio Font Tullot

With Eduardo Basso and Inocencio Font Tullot in Salamanca, Spain, in 1992

When the report of the Seminar was brought to the attention of EC in 1968, it recommended that, in future seminars of this type, more emphasis should be placed on providing instruction in methods of teaching meteorology by experienced instructors. Moreover, the Secretary-General was requested to explore the possibility of establishing a centre in Central America where Class III and Class IV meteorological personnel could be trained in the Spanish language. The rest is history.

H.T. — You attended the twentieth session of the WMO Executive Committee in 1970 in Geneva as president of RA III. What can you tell us about this experience?

N.S.B.F. — I presented my report of the last session of RA III and highlighted the important issues. RA III had requested EC to agree to the transfer of the office of the WMO Regional Representative for Latin America from Geneva to the Region. This was a sensitive issue and I expected lively discussions. However, the Committee felt that the matter needed consideration by Sixth Congress and we deferred the item. My participation in this and other EC sessions provided me with the unique opportunity not only to familiarize myself with technical, scientific and administrative matters, but also to come in contact with Directors of the Meteorological Service of some of the most advanced nations. I appreciated the spirit of cooperation and understanding which prevailed during those sessions and, above all, the hard work of the Secretariat staff to make them a success.

H.T. — During the course of your career, you held numerous positions and responsibilities, mainly in the scientific and academic domain. Let us review these briefly.

N.S.B.F. — Besides my activities related to WMO matters, I had many other national responsibilities and functions. In 1967, for example, I participated in an ICAO meteorological committee meeting. I was appointed Vice-President of the National Committee for the UNESCO/WMO International Hydrological Decade in 1969 and was a member of the National Coordinating Council for Scientific and Technological Research for the Presidency of the Republic. In this capacity, I was part of the team which prepared an inventory of scientific and technical research activities and applications in Chile. Based on this inventory, a National Development Plan was prepared and submitted to the President. Of course, my participation and contribution pertained to the meteorological portion. I participated in a number of courses such as the Ecology Course given at the University of Chile (1971); the Law of the Sea course and the National Development of Foreign Policy course at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, Santiago. In 1972, I was a founding member of the Chilean Society for History and Geography. The objectives of the Society are to promote the study of geography, harmonize teaching methods at all levels, organize Geographical Congresses, present papers in such meetings and invite national and foreign experts to participate in our activities. I became so interested and involved in this activity that, at one stage, I even found myself teaching geography. It was in 1975 that I was promoted to the rank of full Colonel and as such participated as chairman in the VII Meeting of the Inter-American Meteorological Committee of the Air Forces of the Americas in Santiago.

H.T. — Why did you retire so early?

N.S.B.F. — I retired in 1976 at the age of 50 upon my own request; I had more than 30 years of active service to my credit and thought it was time to do other things. Many people, including yourself, have asked me how I could combine a military career with an academic life. Most of my time in the Chilean Air Force was devoted to teaching and learning. A civilian could have done my work—it so happened that I was in the Air Force. The post of the Director of the Meteorological Office in the Air Force was not associated with a specific military grade. For example, I became Chief of the Meteorological Office when I was Squadron Leader. In Chile, the Meteorological Service is part of the Air Force but at the same time under the Directorate of Civil Aviation and is the link between WMO and ICAO.

At the Chilean Meteorological Service in Santiago

At the Chilean Meteorological Service in Santiago with (from left to right) Hugo Humberto Oliva Haupt, Director and Permanent Representative of Chile with WMO; Hessam Taba; and Alejandro Muñoz, Deputy Director of Forecasting, Santiago, Chile, January 2002

Some of the academic positions which I held were instructor at the Military Polytechnical Academy of the Chilean Army (courses for polytechnical engineers) and adviser for professional careers for officers of the Air Force in the Aeronautical Polytechnical Academy. I was also a member of the National Commission for Nuclear Energy, an advisory agency for the Government. As you see, my military background was no obstacle to my academic career. At the same time, I acquired a certain amount of discipline, which supported me in my scientific activities and when I was helping my students prepare their theses.

H.T. — Are there any other bodies in Chile dealing with meteorological activities?

N.S.B.F. — The meteorological duties related to aeronautical activities, weather forecasts for different purposes and safety of tropics in the air at sea and on land are within the responsibilities of the National Meteorological Service. Other institutions and enterprises in Chile having meteorological activities include the General Water Directorate, which is is in charge of setting up national hydrometric networks and the control and use of water resources. It maintains a number of precipitation and climatological stations. The National Electric Enterprise has its own hydrological and climatological networks which serve specific purposes such as planning the construction and operation of hydro-electric power plants.

H.T. — Could you recount some of the important events of your professional life?

N.S.B.F. — The first I would like to mention occurred in 1969, when I received the distinction of becoming an academic member of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. With some of my geography students, we took part in preparing the anti-pollution plan for the metropolitan area of Santiago. The next was when I was awarded the “Cruz al Mérito Aeronáutico de Chile” on 12 December 1992. The order reads: “... he was one of those who set up the basis for the formation and development of the Dirección Meteorológica de Chile with its advanced technology and efficiency. It also recognizes his active participation in both national and international events". Finally, I must mention my one-year stay in the Antarctic and my participation in the First Ibero-american Congress of Meteorology in Salamanca, Spain, in 1992. There, I had the wonderful opportunity to see once again my former collaborators Inocencio Font Tullot, Eduardo Basso and Virgilio Torres Molinero, as well as the Secretary-General of WMO, Prof. G.O.P. Obasi .

Some other important events in my professional life were the awards I received from the University of Santiago de Chile, the Embassy of the United States of America and the Embassy of France.

H.T. — Would you like to say something about your family?

N.S.B.F. — I wish to thank my wife Judith Yuraszeck, my sons Sergio and Claudio, and my daughter Carolina for their constant support.

H.T. — This is the interview of a fortunate man: you are to be congratulated for having been able to combine so harmoniously a successful military and academic career and a happy family life.



  • 1 Interviewed WMO Bulletin 33 (3) [back]
  • 2 Interviewed WMO Bulletin 34 (3) [back]
  • 3 Interviewed WMO Bulletin 30 (4) [back]
  • 4 Interviewed WMO Bulletin 31 (1) [back]
  • 5 Interviewed WMO Bulletin 44 (4) [back]
  • 6 Interviewed WMO Bulletin 51 (2) [back]
  • 7 Interviewed WMO Bulletin 34 (2) [back]
  • 8 Interviewed WMO Bulletin 30 (1) [back]
  • 9 Interviewed WMO Bulletin 45 (2) [back]


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