During World War II, in more than 1,000 hours of engineering and experimental flight testing, Boeing test pilot Bob Robbins made major contributions to the combat effectiveness of B-17s and B-29s. After WWII his contributions continued, first as test pilot for the initial flight testing of the then-radical experimental XB-47 and later as B-47, B-52 and KC-135 project engineer or program manager for those vitally important programs at Boeing's Wichita plant. In this month's Profile, AVweb's Joe Godfrey talks with Bob about flying Boeing B-314 Clippers over the Atlantic for Pan Am, his 37 years at Boeing testing and managing programs on B-17s, the XPBB-1, the #1 XB-29, XB and B-47s, B-52s and KC-135s, and the day he outran [then Major] Chuck Yeager.
Robert M. Robbins was born May 15, 1916, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He learned how to fly during the summer before college, earned a bachelors degree in aeronautical engineering from MIT in 1938, and went to work for Pan Am as a flight engineer on Boeing 314s. Three years later, with only 361 hours as PIC in single-engine aircraft, a private pilot certificate and no instrument rating, Eddie Allen at Boeing hired him as a test copilot, and he soon became Eddie's assistant on the XPBB-1 flying boat program.
After an in-flight fire in the #2 XB-29 killed Eddie and his crew in February 1943, Bob, after an Air Force checkout, took over the #1 XB-29 test program in "The Flying Guinea Pig." In 1946, Bob was assigned to the XB-47 and was PIC on its initial flight. In September 1948, Bob retired as a test pilot and became assistant project engineer on the B-47B. In 1956 he was made chief project engineer of the Wichita division of Boeing. In 1958 he became engineering manager of the B-52, and B-52 program manager in 1961. In 1977 he moved to Daytona Beach as Boeing resident manager at General Electric. He retired from Boeing on January 1, 1979, at age 62. Bob was a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and was chairman of its Central U.S. section in 1967 and '68. He's currently on the Board of Visitors of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, is a fellow in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and is a member of a number of other aviation-oriented organizations.
How did you get interested in airplanes?
When I was a kid, about seven or eight years old, I remember laying in bed looking out my window one night and seeing strange lights off in the distance moving across the sky. It was an airplane and I was fascinated. Then, like a lot of kids my age, my dad took me to New York for the ticker tape parade to celebrate Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight. I was permanently hooked! In my first year of prep school they asked about plans for the future and goals in life and I said then that I wanted to be chief engineer of a large aircraft manufacturing company. I also wanted to learn to fly, but both of my parents were scared of aviation. My mother encouraged me because it's what I wanted to do, but my dad put the brakes on. Then, on the night before the day I graduated from prep school, he told me I could learn how to fly ... but he didn't want to give me any financial support. If I was killed, he didn't want to be a part of my death. I learned how to fly in the summer before I went to MIT.
Where did you learn?
In Bloomsburg, Pa., in an Aeronca C-3, with a 36 horsepower two-cylinder engine. It cost six dollars an hour with or without the instructor. I soloed in about three hours and 40 minutes with no formal ground school just what the instructor would point out as you were walking to the airplane.
I got my private pilot license during my first year at MIT. I'd solicit the guys in the fraternity house on weekends to fly somewhere and split the expenses. So by the time I got out of MIT, I had about 100 hours in as many different airplanes as I could find. At MIT I had an airplane design course and we studied an airplane where you had to pull the engine to change the battery. That convinced me that I wasn't going to be just another theoretical engineer, I wanted to be a practical engineer.
In 1938, as graduation approached, I was thinking about staying to get a masters degree, but I saw that Pan Am was coming to the campus to interview and I thought I'd see what the interview process was all about. They were planning to start trans-Atlantic operations in the summer of 1939 using Boeing B-314 flying boats, and that sounded like just what I wanted. Getting an aircraft and aircraft engine mechanic's license and good practical mechanical experience and the allure of flying the Atlantic in those big flying boats was enough for me to abandon the idea of a masters degree, and I went to work for Pan Am in June of 1938. My first flight was the ninth trans-Atlantic crossing of a commercial airplane carrying passengers.
What route did you fly?
North Beach, the seaplane base at La Guardia, had not been built at the time, so we were based in Baltimore and that's where we did maintenance on the airplanes. We flew the airplane empty from Baltimore to Port Washington on Long Island to pick up our passengers, because Pan Am could not carry passengers domestically. From Port Washington we flew to Shediac [New Brunswick], Botwood [Newfoundland], and Foynes [Ireland], and on to Southampton [England]. I only flew that route once before September 1, 1939, because Pan Am suspended operations to England after Hitler invaded Poland. After that we terminated in Foynes.
Then as winter came we flew a more southern route because of the stronger headwinds and the chance for ice. The route became Port Washington to Bermuda to the Azores to Lisbon, and back the same route. Horta, our port in the Azores, was a disaster. By that winter Pan Am had four B-314s in the Atlantic division. Three of them were stuck in Horta over the 1939-1940 Christmas holiday season with their passengers because of the ocean swells. One was there for three weeks! After that winter Pan Am changed the winter westbound route from Lisbon to Bolama in Portuguese Guinea on the western tip of Africa and then to Belem [Brazil] and New York. By then they had finished North Beach at La Guardia.
In February,1941, I was Flight Engineer on the second flight into Bolama. We moored the B-314 in the river, and because we were staying overnight we moored using the seaplane's strong bow pendant shackled directly to the heavy anchor chain in case bad weather would come in unexpectedly. The bow pendant is a 5/8ths-inch-diameter stainless-steel cable about 15 feet long with one end permanently attached to the keel about 3 feet underwater. It was a tidewater river, and overnight the bow pendant and the anchor chain became badly fouled around each other and we were unable to separate them from the rowboat we were in. The water was so muddy you couldn't see a thing. The station mechanic had contracted a skin infection and it didn't seem like a good idea for him to get in the water. So I stripped and jumped in. After several dives, I finally got the mess untangled and got back into the rowboat. It was only then that the mechanic told me that there were piranhas in the river and only a week earlier they had attacked a group of native women fishing near shore in water up to their knees. Before they could get the few feet to shore, the piranhas had stripped the flesh from their legs. I could have killed that mechanic. That may have been the closest I've ever come to being killed around an airplane.
How did you get to Boeing?
Bob and #1 XB-29, Nov. 1944
About a year later I was ready to leave Pan Am. I had contacted a few other companies and got offers as a flight engineer, but Eddie's letter had dangled that word "copilot" and that intrigued me. It turns out that Eddie's letter had been written by Don Whitworth, who was a flight test engineer that Eddie had hired just three weeks before, and he's the one who had dangled that copilot job in front of me. When Eddie looked at my resume and by now I had 361 hours of single-engine pilot time, a private pilot's license, no instrument rating, and I had probably flown 30 different light airplanes, most of them under 100 horsepower he wired back that I didn't have enough experience to be a copilot. I decided to go for broke, and I wired back that I had other offers as a flight engineer, but it was the copilot job that I wanted. It worked. He wired back the next morning and offered me a copilot job as an engineering flight test copilot on the B-17. That was the day before Pearl Harbor.
I told my boss, John Borger, that I was leaving and he made me a great offer to stay. They offered me the Pan Am training airplane and the instruction I would need to get my commercial license and a job as a Pan Am pilot. That made the decision a lot harder, and I'm glad I went the way I did, but one of the regrets in my life is that I wasn't twins, so I could have taken both opportunities.
Around the middle of '42 it started to dawn on me why Eddie had probably been willing to hire me with so little flight experience. The Boeing plant at Renton was being built to build the twin-engine XPBB-1 patrol bomber for the Navy. So while I didn't have a lot of flying time, I sure had some boat experience from Pan Am. Eddie had picked Bob Dansfield as his assistant for the XB-29, and I was the assistant on the flying boat. In the last six months of '42 I flew about 30 hours as copilot on the XPBB-1 with either Eddie or [Boeing Chief Test Pilot] Al Reed. Because Eddie had to fly the XB-29 on December 28, 1942, he, without warning, asked me to make the XPBB-1 final demonstration flight for the Navy that day as aircraft commander. It was my first XPBB-1 flight as PIC!
Al Reed left Boeing shortly after Eddie and Bob and their crew were killed in the crash of XB-29 #2 in February, 1943. The key people who knew my flying abilities were gone. I had a new boss, (former Chief Project Engineer) N. D. Showalter who had been made chief of flight test. He didn't know me at all. A few months later the Navy sent the boat back for some modifications, and N. D. wanted Elliott Merrill who had never flown the boat to be pilot and me to be copilot, but he wanted me to be responsible for the airplane. Elliott was far more senior, had much more experience, and was a more competent pilot, but not on the boat. I told N. D. in writing that I was perfectly willing to be copilot, but that I couldn't be copilot and be responsible for the airplane. The captain has to make decisions if something happens, and you can't be responsible if you're not the captain. I also told him that Eddie Allen had had enough confidence in my ability to let me fly the final demonstration flight for the Navy. I think that forced N. D. to take a good look at me and in the end he made me the captain for that project, and later assigned me to the XB-29 and the XB-47. That might never have happened if Eddie Allen hadn't asked me to fly the XPBB-1 final demonstration for the Navy.
Take us through your experience with the XB-47, and the day you outran Chuck Yeager.
In the middle of '46 N. D. Showalter told me Boeing was going to build a jet bomber and asked me to be the flight test representative to the design project. So for about a year Scott Osler, who was to be my copilot, and I learned what we could about jet airplanes and engines. There were no simulators in those days. We made the first flight on December 17, 1947 from Seattle to Moses Lake. After about three months of testing we had good basic data and we were ready to get precise performance data. To do that you need a good calibration of the pitot-static system, and the best way to calibrate a big airplane is with a calibrated chase airplane.
Chuck Yeager & Bob Robbins, 1948
We had dinner the night he arrived, then the next morning we both fired up and took off for the test. I gradually increased my speed until I was within four or five points of what I thought would be max speed. Then Chuck radioed and said "Bob, would you do a 180 and head back to Moses Lake?" I thought, well, he's smart, he doesn't have as much fuel as I do and he doesn't want to get too far from the airport. So I did the 180, got stabilized on speed and altitude, and Chuck's not there. I asked where he was and he got on the radio and said "Bob, I can't stay up with you." For Chuck Yeager to admit that he couldn't stay up with a civilian test pilot flying a bomber is just the joy of my life!
When did you move from being a test pilot to engineering?
I finished phase one of the XB-47 program, then turned the program over to the Air Force in July of 1948. Guy Townsend was the Air Force test pilot who flew phase two. At that point I wasn't going to be flying, but I'd be there to answer questions from the ground over the radio. I got into a relaxed mode and realized that I could keep test flying which I loved but way back in prep school I said that I wanted to be chief engineer of a large aircraft manufacturing company, and if I was ever going to get back to engineering I ought to start doing it. So N. D. got me a job as me assistant project engineer on the B-47B production program.
Now let me back up a little. About halfway through phase one I was babbling to N.D. about some of the problems with the airplane and he asked me if I had told the project about them. I sheepishly said "No, because I don't know how to fix them." Then N. D. lit into me and said "We've got a whole design project that knows how to fix things, but they can only do it if they know what to fix." So on his orders I sat down and wrote a five-page memo listing everything that I could think of that ought to be fixed, sent it to the project, and forgot about it.
Lyle Pierce was the project engineer and I walked into his office on the Monday I was told to report to him and I put out my hand and said "Mr. Pierce, I'm Bob Robbins." He said "Oh yes, Mr. Robbins, I've been expecting you. I've got a job for you. Fix these!" and he hands me my five page memo!
From there it was typical project engineer and program management assignments for the next 30 years. I was assistant project engineer on the B-47B, project engineer on the B-47C, which was supposed to be the four-engine airplane that General LeMay was violently opposed to. He didn't want the B-47 improved too much because he didn't want it to take funds away from the B-52 and he was afraid that it might even kill the B-52 program. He really wanted the B-52 for the long haul and he was right as history has proved.
You played major roles in both the B-29 and the B-47 programs. What contributions did each of them make to history?
They were both so very important. The B-29, along with the two atomic bombs, ended WWII months and maybe years sooner than would have been the case without the B-29. We were planning to begin a full-scale invasion of the Japanese home islands on November 1, 1945 just two and a half months after Japan surrendered. The evidence is irrefutable that the Japanese were prepared to powerfully resist such an invasion. There are credible estimates that we should expect a million casualties and the Japanese four million from such an invasion. It was certainly very important to avoid paying such a high price.
First flight of the XB-47
Many shortcomings were recognized before the XB-47 ever flew and were coped with in a variety of ways in early XB-47 testing (mostly operating techniques) and with other means in B-47 production approach and drag chutes, wheel anti-skid systems, vortex generators, etc. Many recognized shortcomings waited until later generations of jets for "good" solutions engine fuel consumption, engine acceleration, engine reverse thrust, engine power, wing spoilers for improved lateral control and increased drag and to spoil lift on approach and after touchdown, etc. But some of the latent B-47 shortcomings were not recognized until production airplanes had been in service for years.
Most notable were the structural problems that showed up first on the in-service B-47s but were also soon identified as existing on the next generation of jets such as the B-52s, the KC-135s and the C-5As. The solutions developed during the B-47 program are in clear evidence in today's jet airplane industry. Corrosion control is one, but the major one is coping with the potential problem of structural fatigue. Huge steel frameworks known as cyclic test fixtures for full-size airframes were first used in the B-47 program. They are today an integral part of designing and developing any new large jet transport airplane.
I also think the B-47 may have even prevented World War Three. During the Cold War, Russia was really rattling the saber at us with the Berlin blockade, the Korean War, the missiles in Cuba, their huge nuclear bomb program and their very aggressive takeover and subjugation of large portions of eastern Europe. There was a lot of fear in this country of a WW III as evidenced by the establishment of evacuation routes and bomb and fallout shelters. It was pretty tense. Some say that General LeMay overdid it and that 2,000-and-some B-47s were more than we needed, but his philosophy as I understand it was to demonstrate power that was so overwhelming that Russia wouldn't dare attack us. In the 1950s, the B-47 was that power.
[Former National Air & Space Museum Director] Walter Boyne is pretty clear in his writing that the B-47 may have prevented World War III. This and the technological contributions and heritage from the XB-47 and B-47 programs which are far broader than most people recognize, make it very difficult for me to choose between the B-29 or B-47 as the more important program. The B-29 probably prevented millions of Allied and Japanese casualties. The B-47 may have prevented even more casualties by preventing WW III. In addition, it certainly has changed the world by launching the jet transport age, and technologically siring some 20,000 large jet aircraft. Both the B-29 and the B-47 programs were vitally important.
When did you leave Seattle?
The Air Force demanded that the B-47 be built in Wichita. As a result the production facilities were initially remote from the experienced B-47 engineering design team in Seattle. That leads to delays and communication problems, so it was decided to to move an experienced B-47 engineering nucleus from Seattle to Wichita to augment the Wichita engineering department. As part of that move I was promoted from Project Engineer on the B-47C in Seattle to Senior Project Engineer on the B-47 production program in Wichita in 1952. I stayed in Wichita until we moved to Florida in 1977.
When you were flying as a test pilot, did you fly general aviation, too?
Only a little bit. During the war general aviation was pretty restricted in the Seattle area. Right after the war I was part owner of an AT-6. When I stopped professional test flying the middle of 1948, my private life insurance premiums remained very high. With a wife and two children, I needed that private insurance. So to reduce my premiums, I didn't fly for about 10 years. After 10 years, the insurance companies were satisfied that I wasn't going to be a test pilot any more, so they removed that restriction and I started flying privately again.
What GA airplanes were you flying?
I flew a Boeing flying club Cessna 172, and by then the VOR system had come along, and I was amazed at how easy navigation had become. Then I bought some stock in a Piper dealership and bought a Twin Comanche, and then Cherokee Six that I had for about 15 years. I had it as far north as Point Barrow and as far south as Santiago and Buenos Aires. I was doing a lot of flying between Wichita and Oklahoma City, and Wichita and SAC headquarters in Omaha, and occasionally Dayton and Washington D.C. It was a little slow for the trips east, but those extra seats really came in handy for the short hop to Oklahoma City. We usually had people from other departments that needed to go down there, and instead of it being an overnight trip, we could go down in the morning and get back the same day. Also, I did some charter flying for the Piper FBO mostly in a Piper Aztec.
Bob Robbins, the only man to fly the first and the last flying B-29, conducting a cockpit tour of CAF's B-29 "FIFI"
In 1976 my boss told me we were going to bid to build weapons systems trainers for B-52s and KC-135s. We would have resident representatives at the five subcontractors one in Los Angeles, one in England, General Electric in Daytona Beach and asked me to think about it. We wouldn't know for six months if we won the contract, but if we won it I'd have a week to decide if I wanted one of those assignments. Daytona Beach appealed to us because I'd thought about retiring in Florida. This would be an 18-month assignment, I'd be 62 and a half when it was over, so we thought "why not?"
Once I got to Florida I saw their ads that said "the foremost aviation university in the world." They're saying this to a guy who graduated from MIT, and of course there's Cal Tech and NYU and University of Washington and I thought I'd better take a look at that upstart outfit claiming to be the foremost aviation university in the world. I went down and walked the halls, and stuck my head into a couple of the classrooms, and I was favorably impressed with what I saw. One thing led to another and I was invited to join the Board of Visitors, then I was chairman of the Board of Visitors for a year, and I'm still involved.
Have you ever taught someone to fly?
I don't have an instructor's rating and I've never done any formal teaching. One possible exception was in April 1943 when the Air Corps asked Boeing to send a test pilot to their instructor pilot training base at Geiger Field in Spokane to teach their instructor pilots some of the finer points of flying a B-17. Boeing sent me. At the time I had only 61 hours and 4 month's experience as a B-17 Aircraft Commander!! Also in the course of our B-17, XPBB-1, B-29 and B-47 test flying, I was sometimes teaching very competent copilots about that particular airplane but I never did any formal instructing.
That's one of the gaps, and another is that I was never in the military. Military training is fantastic and I would love to have had that experience. Rationally I know that I was far more valuable to the war effort doing what I was doing as a test pilot but I've always felt a little bit guilty about it. General Chidlaw's comments help greatly to relieve that feeling.
General Chidlaw's remarks from the posthumous Air Medal award to Eddie Allen on April 23, 1946:
... But in the air war there were other men whose work and without whose sacrifice it would not have been possible to get into combat the planes that finally won the war. Especially this was true in the case of the aircraft test pilots - the men who took the planes in their experimental stages, tested their potentialities, ironed out their defects and brought in the reports that made it possible to fashion these airplanes into formidable weapons of war. Theirs was the contribution of a scientific objectivity combined with the daring and fearlessness of the pioneer, and the contribution was a magnificent one. They have earned the admiration and the respect of the men who flew the planes that grew out of their efforts and accomplishments and, as a matter of fact, they were really a part of the great Air Force team that bombed the enemy to defeat.
Bob wrote two chapters about the B-29 and Eddie Allen for Chester Marshall's book The Global Twentieth that he has given us permission to publish here.