by Melinda Sanchez
photography by Liz Lucsko
As the crowd oohs and ahhs, the pilot of the plane thinks of his many accomplishments. His law degree and business success, his grandchildren and his service in the forestry. He thinks to himself, “Why do I risk it all in flying these dare devil air shows?” The answer that Robin, “Rob” Harrison has come up with is simple, “It’s fun.”
It was 1947, at the age of 6, when Rob Harrison experienced his first memorable air flight. Harrison recalls, “The first flight I can remember was with my father, and he did some spins, and it just scared me to death.” Little did he know that the air tumbling that he faced with wide eyes then would mold and shape him into the “Tumbling Bear” he is today. One might think that aviation is just in his blood, because his father was a career navel officer and flew as well, but Harrison, a Honolulu, Hawaii native, will be the first to testify that landing in his current position has taken nothing less than hard work and determination. Before realizing that he was born to fly, he spent the days of his late high school and early college years racing motorcycles. In part, his racing experiences led him to mechanics, as he found himself working on motorcycles consistently. Harrison noted, “About 1970, I got tired of racing motorcycles, and I was looking for something to do, so I signed up for flight lessons.”
Besides his craving for speed and danger, Harrison realized that aviation offered him something that no other field could. He said, “There is always something new to be learned in aviation, always something nobody knows, that we can find out if we look for it hard enough.” With his new found love for knowledge, discovery and of course flying, Harrison earned his flight license in 1972 and purchased his first of about 10 or 12 air planes for $350.
Working in the U.S. Forest Service Technology and Development Center in San Dimas, Calif., Rob worked his way up in the aviation world. By 1994, when he decided to retire, Harrison had earned the title “Program Leader for Aviation,” which set him in charge of the technicalities of the Forest Service aviation development program. Harrison also conducted flight tests for air tankers and helicopters, did accident investigation and developed new aerial fire fighting systems.
While in the forestry, Harrison was able to obtain several important aviation credentials. He achieved a new title bearing the name, “Designated Engineering Representative,” which he jokingly says was “quite embarrassing.” This entitled Harrison the ability to approve aircraft designs on behalf of the FAA.
In the duration of his 28 years in the forestry, the Center encouraged him to pursue higher education, above his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering earned in 1963 from Oregon State University and Certificate of Flight Test Engineering from the University of Tennessee Space Institute. Yet, Harrison believed that he could still reach greater heights. Because his job level at the forestry dealt with regulations and Congress, “it was as much of a legal job as it was technical,” so Harrison decided to go to Law School. He attended night classes at the University of La Verne and received his J.D. in 1978.
Harrison currently serves as an attorney, primarily as an expert witness in technical matters. His office represents 47 major motorcycle companies and helps them in organizing tests to meet regulation requirements. Harrison also reconstructs accident scenes for investigation, and deals with administrative law with for the Occupational Health Safety Administration.
After his retirement from the forestry and his completion of schooling, Harrison could not give up flying. It was already in his system. He said, “When I retired from the forest service six years ago, I didn’t want to give up flying, so I thought I’d do some air show flying.”
Harrison says that he believes his grandchildren to be one of his greatest accomplishments. He humbly adds, ” If I’ve accomplished anything at all, I would say that becoming a top level air show performer would be one, and I don’t want to seem like a snob, but we’ve done very well in the legal arena as well.”
Harrison prides himself in seeing justice triumph with the aid of his legal work but always comes back to the topic of flying. He believes that the two practices go hand in hand. “It’s a great way to get rid of a lot of money. We could quite easily spend all the money I make practicing law and being a consulting engineer on airplanes,” he says.
Harrison thinks back and remembers a young boy who had a similar love for aviation and wanted to work for him. He took him under his wing and taught him the importance of hard work, which he himself had learned already. “Aviation teaches you to work; you have to work, it has to be right. You cannot be slipshod when maintaining an airplane, even when you’re cleaning an airplane,” he recalls telling the boy, who grew up and is now a commercial air pilot.
Harrison believes and exemplifies that an education is very important to anyone who wants to survive. He says, “A lot of people have sacrificed their lives for knowledge.” He has shown through his own schooling that it is important to his own career, but also mentions that a career in aviation means that one must be smart. “You have to be careful; you have to be smart; you have to think; you have to learn how to read things to understand what they’re talking about; you have to learn to accept discipline; you have to do it right the first time; there is no second chance when you’re up there,” he says, “That’s what’s important about aviation, and it’s also more fun than anything else I’ve ever done. I can’t imagine not being an air show star.”
As he recalls his strong influence on the young boy from the past, Harrison mentions that he loves to see the reactions from the children at his air shows. He says that he can remember one time when he landed his plane and went over to mingle with the crowd, two small girls approached him and told him that they were worried about him when he was doing all his stunts up in the air. He says, “It’s a very intensive experience, and I can’t imagine not doing it. I love the kids at the air shows; they get such a kick out of it.” Being an air show pilot seems to fit Harrison’s personality perfectly. “It demands the kind of person who is able to put a lot of psychic energy into it.”
As a person who never stops learning, Harrison says that he still learns new things everyday. He quotes a famous acrobatic flyer Neil Williams and says, “The thing about aerobatics is, it’ll teach a person about himself; what he wants to know, and what he doesn’t want to know.” Harrison believes that aerobatics “is the greatest challenge, short of going to the moon,” and also believes that it is a very manly thing to do. “We’re real short of manly things to do in this country. Nobody can do anything without someone pissing and moaning about it ruining the environment, or it being dangerous or smelling bad, or something,” he jokes, then adds, “And I like to be able to show the kids they can do it.” But despite his quest in showing his masculinity, Harrison always comes back to his whole-hearted self and his true quest in teaching and nurturing the hopes and dreams of today’s children, tomorrow’s future. He caters especially to children at his airshows, making it a point to taxi up to a place where they can talk to him after a routine and receive his signed picture.
As he straightens his plane and comes to a landing at March Air Force Base after an airshow performance, Harrison releases his breath. Wayne Handly, an icon himself in the aerobatics field approaches him and says, “Nice tumble Robpisses me off.” That was the nicest thing anyone has ever told Rob Harrison, and at that moment he was atop of the world all over again.