La Verne Magazine
Tumbling Bear Laughs in Danger's Face
by Melinda Sanchez
photography by Liz Lucsko
Like going for a Sunday drive, Rob Harrison straps into his Zlin 50 unlimited
aerobatic monoplane, about to take off to perform an anything but routine
air show. His style and the aircraft he flies combine for a show that emphasizes
speed, crispness and rarely-seen radical tumbling maneuvers. Harrison, an
alumnus of the ULV School of Law, maintains a Claremont office and practices
primarily as an expert witness in technical matters.
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