Bob Norris

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After 19 years as a naval aviator, Bob Norris was a month away from getting his own carrier squadron when he was grounded with a rare brain condition. After an operation, paralyzed but energized, he wrote a novel in his head. He's now working on his fourth book in the series, which is about the mindset and the hardware of aerial warfare. In this month's Profile, Bob talks with AVweb's Joe Godfrey about carrier traps, catapults, Tailhook, teamwork and sexism in the service branches, and his latest book,

Bob NorrisBob Norris was born on March 20, 1955 in Germany, where his father Bill (a test pilot for the Air Force), was stationed. He learned how to fly in the Navy and spent the next 19 years flying fighter jets. In January of 1996 he went from one doctor to another trying to find out why he was suffering paralysis and losing his senses of smell, hearing and taste. The answer was a rare brain condition that required eight and a half hours of the most technologically advanced brain surgery. For the next four days he lay awake, pumped full of steroids to keep the brain swelling down. That's when he kept his mind busy by falling back on his POW survival training. He tackled an "impossible" task ... he wrote his first novel. "Check Six" sold well enough that the publisher commissioned another book, "Fly Off," and now he's writing books three and four in the series.

Bob's books are especially popular with pilots because of the accuracy of the flying scenes. And that brain must have a touch of Nostradamus, too. "Check Six" was published in October of 1998. His fictional hero, Randi Cole, is ostensibly the first American woman fighter pilot to see combat. She's a 26-year old Navy Lieutenant flying a Hornet off a carrier in the middle east, her mission was to strike at a suspected chemical weapons plant, and her father was a Vietnam aviator. In the real world a few weeks later, on December 16th, 1998, 26-year old Navy Lieutenant Kendra Williams became the first female American pilot to drop bombs in a combat mission when she dropped 1,000-pound laser-guided bombs on a suspected chemical weapons plant in Iraq during Operation Desert Fox. Her F/A-18 Hornet launched from the USS Enterprise and her father flew F-8 Crusaders in Vietnam with VF-211.

When did you know you wanted to be a pilot?

From my first concious thought. I think it must be in my DNA. I grew up in a military environment, went to five different high schools. My father flew with General Yeager and then transitioned to a number of "black" projects which he couldn't tell us about. By the time of Vietnam, my father was working for a civilian company, still doing that "black" stuff. My sister married an F-4 pilot who gave me an ops manual and some other unclassified military information. I read that manual cover to cover, dry as it was. My brother was flying Super Connies doing Red Crown work. Vietnam was on TV at the dinner table every night, and my family was involved. I just never considered anything else. My dad had over 10,000 hours of jet time, and I figured there was nothing I could do to eclipse that. But he had never landed on an aircraft carrier, so I decided to be a Navy pilot.

Did you have any flight training before the Navy?

Zero. The first time I took off was on day one of FAM 1. I was competing with students that had logged, in some cases, hundreds of hours. Back then the screening process was just a handful of flights before they decided if you were going to multiengine prop or to helicopter, and I knew I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I had ridden motorcycles for years and been good in sports, so fortunately I had enough coordination to compete.

I was also fortunate to get a TAC AIR instructor, because they were very rare in primary. If you're a fighter pilot, teaching in a T-34 isn't exactly a prime assignment. What they had found was that some of the really good students were getting handed over to the P-3 and Helo classes and TAC AIR was getting what was left over. So they sent some good TAC AIR guys down to remedy that. My instructor could see that I was a kindred spirit even though I didn't yet have the skills of some of the other students. I think I learned more in the debriefs over a pitcher of beer than I did in the cockpit when I was focused on the mission at hand.

I got an F-14 slot right out of flight school. The older F-4 pilots were transitioning to the Tomcat and there weren't a lot of slots open, so the typical path for an ensign was to get an F-4 then make the move when an F-14 opened up. The timing was just right for me and I got a Tomcat right away. One of the rewards for graduating number one was getting sent directly to cruise. Several of us were neck-and-neck when we went out to the boat to do our day and night work. Whoever finished first would presumably get their choice of the available squadrons. Then there was a mishap at sea, so now they were looking for a replacement for a ship halfway through cruise. They needed someone who could handle landings right away and I had done well at that, so I got the nod.

Which carrier was it?

The Kennedy. On my second flight off the Kennedy, I was flying on the skipper's wing and we got a vector to intercept a pair of MiGs. So here's Ensign Norris, who can barely spell "fleet," chasing a MiG on his second flight, thinking "this is what it's like all the time."

I was naive. My squadron had very colorful helmets that they taped themselves. When I arrived they gave me an incredibly gaudy gold one and told me that mine wasn't ready yet because they were still taping it. I was at the office morning and night bugging them to get my helmet ready. I didn't find this out until the next new pilot arrived on the cruise and they gave that gold helmet to him, but that gold helmet was to tell everybody from the boss to the lowliest person on deck that I was the rookie.

Bob NorrisWhat other ships did you fly from?

I was on the Independence, and we joined the Kennedy for the Granada mission. From there I went back to the Kennedy for attacks on Lebanon. We got our nose bloodied on that one. We lost an A-6. My airwing commander was shot down but we recovered him.

For one thing, we were using the classic Alpha Strike from the Vietnam days. The target list was a little obscure — like triple-A sites — and we could only attack from west to east and only in the morning.

Was that to reduce civilian casualties?

No, honestly, the morning attack was so we could finish the mission before the evening news back home. The highlight for me was when Admiral Tuttle finally got permission to shoot the New Jersey. We had permission to take two air wings over the beach, but not to fire on a battleship that was three miles out in the water. It was strange.

My Tomcat squadron, VF-32, was flying reconnaisance. Our job was to drag a recon pod across the beach we had been bombing and get shot at. I was still out flying the beach when the New Jersey fired on the SA9 sites that were shooting at me, and it got a little crazy. It was surreal, too. In Beirut, life was going on as normal, with people sunning at the beach, and skiboats in the water, and five miles south we were in combat.

Take us through a textbook catapult ... a carrier launch.

Let's start at the beginning. The flow of the crew moving around a flight deck is like a ballet when it's done well, and it's chaos when it's done poorly. The carrier deck is pitching in the sea, and the non-skid coating is gone by about halfway through the cruise. So you put fuel, hydraulic fluid and saltwater on raw metal and it's easy to start sliding. You probably haven't preflighted the whole airplane because on a carrier the tail is out over the water, so there's a lot of trust that goes on between the pilot, the plane captain and the crew.

When you climb in and strap up, the airplane is still chained down with about a dozen heavy tie-down chains. When they break down the chains, the adrenaline starts ... right then. Typically as the cruise goes on, not all of your systems are working "perfectly," especially on a machine as old as the Tomcat. So you're thinking about the mission and planning contingencies for a nav system that might be drifting or a HUD that isn't working quite right.

A good launch starts with a good taxi, and getting to the catapult with the least amount of agony. You're passed from crew to crew, other airplanes are blasting up and blowing you around. You may sit there and inhale somebody's exhaust for a while. The yellow shirts — the directors — own their little chunk of real estate on the deck, and have a godlike quality of control, but if you take their helmet off you find that it's a 20-year old kid.

Once you're in place, you bring the motors up to full power and it's amazing that you can sit there in place at full power churning and raring to go. Then you give your salute, and the catapult officer gets a thumbs up from the final checker. On the old carriers, the catapult officer is out in the elements with you, on the new carriers he's in a kind of bubble. The catapult officer is always an aviator, and there's another element of trust. If you've got a pitching deck, you've got to trust his timing not to shoot you into the water.

Bob NorrisWith a flourish, he kneels to one knee and points to the bow, and first you get a jolt that snaps your head back, then you get a kick in the butt as you accelerate from 0 to 140 knots in 1.9 seconds or so. If you were an observer watching this from outside, you'd think it was too violent and that you wouldn't have control. But after you become acclimated to it, you're very much aware and in control. What you're looking for is a sufficient rate of acceleration.

How the airplane behaves is controlled by what you're carrying. On the Hornet, you have to have your hand off the stick. They won't shoot you unless they can see your right hand on the windscreen handle. So in addition to everything else, you're monitoring four flight computers to see if they're in agreement about setting the takeoff attitude.

This is the best part. Once you're in the air, you get the airplane cleaned up, gear up, flaps up, you're required to stay below 500 feet out to 7 miles. Your first stop is probably going to be the tanker, so you if you're light you can really rage there for a little while.

Does any particular rage come to mind?

The best catapult I ever had was out in Puget Sound, about eight miles from Whidbey Island. The water was filled with sailboats. I was on the Nimitz and we were cooking along at about 30 knots. I get shot off, and now I have to stay below 500 feet for the next seven miles and I'm flying through all these masts. Maybe, for the first time in their lives, the people on the sailboats felt like their tax dollars were spent well that year.

What was your worst catapult?

It was my first cruise. It was night. At night we taxi with lights off and the "ready" signal is turing the lights on. I taxi into place, lights off, and I feel the launch bar hit into the box, and I see the wands giving me the signal to power up. I just start advancing the power from idle, and the catapult fires. For an instant I thought I had split the shuttle and I had to stop the airplane. But then I realized what had happened and I kept bringing the power up. Then I got on the radio to my RIO (radar intercept officer) and say "I've got it," because I don't want him to eject us. Ejecting at that point typically works out well for the RIO and hardly ever works out well for the pilot. We eject in canted directions and I'm pretty sure that if he punches us out, I'll be run over by a 90,000 ton ship at night. So, at the very least, I want to glide the airplane as far as I can, knowing that every foot will count.

We settled pretty badly but we had had a good stroke and the power came up and we were okay. Then they call from the ship and say "214, do you have a problem? 214, turn your lights on!" and my RIO, who's pretty cool and collected, says, "We will as soon as we're ready to go."

Two things are really interesting about this launch. First, there's a green shirt, a kid, whose job is to make sure the launch bar winds up in the box. So he is knelt down by the nosewheel and there's no chance that he had time to get out of the way. Not long after I get airborne I realize that we've run over someone, and I've got a two hour flight ahead of me. So we call back and ask for his status, and they tell us he's fine. My RIO and I talk about it and we're pretty sure they're lying to us, but we're glad they are, so we go fly our mission. It turns out the kid really is fine, because instead of trying to dive to the left, which would have been the instinctive thing to do, he laid down. The ventral fin, which is a sharp blade that hangs from the bottom of the engine nacelle, is only seventeen inches off the ground, and it went right over his head. He quit being a green shirt after that.

The other interesting thing is that my friends back in the ready room, being the concerned and sensitive people that they are, got a tape of the launch and my very calm radio transmission, and looped it so it was playing when I got back to the ship. I would've sworn to you that I spoke in the calmest Chuck Yeager voice I could muster, but what you heard was almost a soprano voice saying "I've got it, I've got it, I've got it."

Now take us through a perfect carrier landing.

I lead a division overhead at 450-plus knots, and break at the bow of the ship while the launch is still in progress.  I pull the airplane in a screaming high-G turn through the one-eighty, drop the gear at the 90, flaps in the groove, and roll wings level for the first time on short final just as the deck turns green and the lens comes to life with a centered ball. Nobody says a word as I trap on the three-wire. The airwing LSO gives me a double-mike click, I look up in the tower and catch a thumbs-up from the boss, and my wingmen trap behind me in precise 45 second intervals, each with an Okay three-wire.  

In the LSO logbook, my Okay-underline has Sierra Hotel scribbled next to it. The master chief invites me to eat at his mess (where they're serving lobster) and the skipper asks me to pick the movie. Oh yeah, it's clean sheet day and the laundry returns all my lost underwear and socks. Pinch me, Joe, I must be dreaming...

The thing about the Navy is no matter how good your mission was, the last 30 seconds has a lot to do with how you feel about it. It's on video, you're going to be debriefed in front of the whole ready room, and the greenie board will have your grade up there for all to see for the rest of the cruise.

How did you wind up in an Air Force F-15?

Those were my orders after that cruise, and I'd have to say I arrived in pretty salty condition. I had been fired on, fired back, done three cruises, feelin' pretty good. I went to Luke AFB outside of Phoenix, and as a Navy guy I was a fish out of water for about six months. My first solo flight in an F-15, I had a hydraulic failure that required me to blow the gear down and take an arrested landing. In the Navy, a field-arrested landing is routine and certainly no cause for concern. At Luke, I was on a 30-mile straight-in, I could see the runway, and the gear was down. I was kind of enjoying the challenge, and I was shocked to see so much angst over it from below.

First, the arrested landing was a big deal, and second, the Air Force considers me a student pilot. And it is true, the Air Force does talk more than the Navy. So on the radio I hear this voice say to me, "This is Sun One. In the event that you miss the arresting gear, I'm going to transmit 'cable, cable, cable' and I want you to add power and rotate the nose to about ten degrees and hold it there..." Now I'm laughing and I break in and tell him "This is your Navy pilot and I've done a few of these and the only thing different about this one is the runway is 12,000 feet long and it isn't moving in the water." Then it got real quiet.

I landed and we towed the airplane, because I couldn't taxi it with no hydraulics. Then they picked me up in my flight gear and drove me to Sun One's office. He happened to be a Brigadier General. I was trying to remember whether the Air Force salutes inside or not, and whether it's covers on or off. So I go in and I'm still thinking maybe he wants to congratulate me. That wasn't the case at all. He wanted to make it clear that this was an Air Force base and he wasn't going to let any squid screw things up.

Unfortunately, I hit the Air Force during a period where appearance was everything. They'd send out two F-15s but only one of them could use afterburner. Well that's no way to train. I call it "legislating safety." It's much better now, but I think most pilots who were there from '83 to '86 will tell you the same thing. The pilots were terrific, but the bureaucracy was horrible.

One thing I think I brought to the Air Force was working in maintenance. A Navy pilot typically grows up in maintenance. Up to that point, the Air Force had practically no exposure to the troops. I did have to wear a scarf and polish my boots, which I try not to admit in mixed company. One thing I will say is that the Air Force's training is excellent and their standardization is impeccable. An F-15 pilot from one base could jump on the wing of an F-15 pilot from another base and, without talking on the radio, could execute a mission. At that time, the Navy couldn't do that.

Where did Sun One send you next?

Rather than go back out to sea, which is where I should have been going, they counted my Air Force time as a deployment and made me the fleet introduction officer for the F-14B. I worked with the teams at Bethpage and Lemoore and literally introduced the airplane to the fleet. Wrote the training manuals and set up the simulators. The big thing about the B was the new engine, which really increased performance. At that time it was called the "A-plus," but it was the B. For the next two years I did airshows and that was a blast.

It was 1986 and TopGun had just come out. It was guaranteed fun doing solo Tomcat demos in the new airplane after that movie came out. The Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds are awesome, but 1986 was a Tomcat's year. It's a terrific airshow airplane. The wings move, a lot of flame comes out, it's a big airplane. Granted there are a lot of airplanes can outperform it, but that airplane with a good pilot and a well choreographed show with the TopGun theme was pretty great.

Then I got an opportunity to go fly F-18s on the west coast. At this late point in my career, with a zillion hours in the Tomcat and a slot open in a west coast squadron of Bs, I came out to Lemoore in central California where nobody knew me at all. It was kind of a humbling experience to fly the Hornet in a way I'm not sure God intended — pointing the nose at the earth and throwing bombs.

And that's when you started feeling strange?

Yeah. At first my hearing on the left side started to go, then I noticed I couldn't smell anything, and I lost my sense of taste. And these things would come and go. My face would be paralyzed in conjunction with this and I'd have what I was calling these "episodes." The Navy wanted to keep me going and I wanted to keep going, so I went to every doctor I could think of, including some civilian doctors at Stanford, but it kept getting worse and worse. I wound up in a new MRI system at Travis [AFB] and that's where I found out I have what's called "vessel looping syndrome." A group of blood vessels were looped around three different cranial nerves and they were causing no end of problems. That's why it was erratic ... I was kind of shorting out.

Is this something you had always had that just now showed up?

It is considered to be a congenital defect. What caused it to trigger is anybody's guess.

I'm sure you considered all the Gs you had been pulling.

Sure. Twenty years of pulling Gs, all those airshows ... who knows? The important thing to me was what we could do about it. I would work hard and get back on flight status, then be grounded, then work hard and get back on ... it was rough. And every time I got hit with an episode, it was worse. You can deal with a loss of taste and even a loss of hearing on one side ... but when I got vertigo, I couldn't hide it. I had been flying all my life, and I got vertigo so bad I'd get sick walking form the bed to the bathroom.

The Navy had a neurosurgeon at Balboa Hospital in San Diego who was doing his payback tour. He had studied at the University of Pittsburgh, where they had pioneered an experimental surgery for this problem. Because these cranial nerves run so deep in the brain, they can't observe the surgery even with fiber optics. So when the operate, they instrument your face. I had over five hundred sensors on my face and neck. In the surgery, a neurologist sits at a console watching the current in your face, and he tells the surgeon where he is. Eight and a half hours later, the surgery was over and my brain started to slow from the trauma. So they pumped me full of steroids, and I was awake for four and half days. My face was completely paralyzed, both sides, so I couldn't blink or swallow. Steroids have an effect kind of like amphetamines. My mind was working a million miles a minute, but I couldn't move.

In POW training, they tell you to tackle an impossible task in your mind. Some people build a golf course, some build a house, I wrote a book. After four days when they finally took the drugs away and I could feel sleep coming, I thought it would be a shame to lose all that work. About three months later I could use a keyboard again so I decided to try and write it down. I had lost the word-for-word, but what I had in my head were memories, as if "Check Six" had actually happened. Six weeks later I had a manuscript.

You were at Tailhook 1991. How much of what you saw there influenced "Check Six"?

Bob NorrisI consider myself a victim of Tailhook. My promotion was held up for three months, and my family was at Miramar while I was at Memorial while I was under investigation like everybody else. Any commander and above that was there went through severe scrutiny. I went through a series of interviews that started relatively civil, and we got into chair throwing, screaming, late-night TV, horrible sessions. I was told eyeball-to-eyeball that I had no rights, which is an interesting thing to tell somebody with 20 years in the Navy.

When I heard about the gauntlet — and I became convinced that it actually happened — I was horribly embarassed for my service and my brother pilots. I can't tell you how much it offends me that someone would do anything like that. There is no excuse, under any conditions. What made it hurt more was that we had finally buried the spectre of Vietnam. Tailhook '91 was an incedible event. I had students and old friends who were on the Midway who, after Desert Storm, continued their cruise. They had set foot on U.S. soil for the first time the opening day of Tailhook.

These guys had not benefitted in the glow of post-Desert Storm like the rest of us had, they had a job to finish. It was the first war we had won in our lifetimes, and to think that a few wannabes were up there pulling those stunts is just outrageous. There were 5,500 people there, and at the very most there were 150 people in that hallway. It doesn't mitigate it, but it was a tiny percentage of the people that caused the trouble.

I had a lot of problems with the Navy leadership. The senior Marine stood up and said, "I was the senior Marine at Tailhook. I accept full responsibility for the Marines there, and if you'll allow me, I'll get to the bottom of it and correct the problem." The Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations were at Tailhook. They spent a year trying to avoid responsibility and allowed Congress and a whole host of agencies to treat every one of us like criminals. If the Chief had taken the heat and then asked for cooperation from us, we would've acted under a direct order and delivered the names. But that's not what happened. We're still feeling repercussions of that because some very, very good officers' reputations were trashed. We lost Admiral Tuttle, the Rickover of Naval aviation. With control comes responsibility. That's why they give you a sword. It's not to kill somebody, it's to fall on.

The hero of "Check Six" is a female fighter pilot who comes up against some pretty rigid ideas about who should be flying off a carrier. How did you arrive at your viewpoint?

I had a kind of epiphany about the issue of mixed gender in aviation. It was patently wrong for the Navy to lower standards to allow women to pass, because you can't lower the hostility of the environment. On the other hand, no pilot becomes a successful carrier pilot without mentoring. No pilot, I don't care how talented they are ... you can't capture in procedures and simulators the environment and all the variables of the carrier environment. It's not just the coaching, it's helping you to overcome self-doubt and other things. The pressure is immense. Your grade for the thing you value most in life is posted in your living room for all to see. I've seen very talented people get crushed, get ulcers.

Even though it was wrong to lower standards, the men were acting hypocritically by not mentoring the women that did make it through. Those two themes are what I try to tackle in my books. I see Randi Cole as a fighter pilot who just happens to be a woman. She has traits in common with other fighter pilots. I try to convince the reader early on in "Check Six" that she's not a superwoman, she's not a sex object, she grew up like a lot of us, wanting to fly, and she's willing to put up with all the gender B.S. to get her shot at it. Her actions are because of her hard work, not because of some innate talent.

Bob NorrisTell us about your newest book, "Fly Off."

"Fly Off" is a contest between the first of a new generation of fighters, like the F-22, and end of a pedigree of fighters using older technology, like the F-18. I thought it was intriguing to have the Super Hornet flown by a highly experienced pilot who still tapes everything to his kneeboard and turns off the voice-automated devices, and the newer generation of pilots who grew up with computers are more comfortable in the new airplanes. It starts as a competition between the hardware and progresses to a competition between the pilots. And there's an event that happens that brings them all together.

Congress just cut the budget of one of your main characters. What's the future like for the F-22?

The good news is it's still flying, but that's about the only good news. When you're looking at the tax dollars — and that's what they get elected for — you can have a whole fleet of Hornets for the cost of one F-22. I think part of this is the percieved threat. We just executed a bunch of missions in Kosovo and we lost one airplane, and the stealthy one at that. We encountered MiG 29s and blew them away, although they were probably piloted poorly. When you look on the threat horizon, there isn't a lot there that can even compete with what we have today. We, as aviators, want to see the newest, coolest stuff, but as taxpayers, we have to look for what we need to counter the real threat.

I think we're sensor poor. I think in Kosovo we proved that we have the ability to strike with precision a building about which we know nothing precise. We can put a bomb on a building, but we don't know if that building's empty or not. So we ought to be spending money on intelligence and sensors. We've also got some ancient support aircraft out in the fleet that guys are flying everyday, like the H-46. We could be looking in that direction. That's easy for me to say from my easychair.

What are you doing when you're not in the easychair?

I'm working on books three and four simultaneously. One's a prequel, one's a sequel. In the sequel, Randi gets sent to a failing squadron with a bad attitude to clean them up. By now she's a MiG killer and she doesn't have to prove herself as a woman and she can move to the next level. She's going to find out if she can be a leader.

I think the true value of gender integration has not been realized ... and won't be realized until we have women in senior positions where they can contribute to our tactics and our leadership. The cycle for tactics for men is we face a challenge, we respond with innovation, we have a success, and the next time we get a challenge we do that again. Here's an example that I've lived. In Vietnam we created the Alpha Strike. So the next time we drop bombs in anger, eleven years later, what do we do? An Alpha Strike, and we get a bloody nose from a bunch of knuckleheads.

The tactics of target-rich Iraq didn't work in Kosovo. Bombing from 15,000 feet with the target on a four-inch green CRT didn't hack it, and that's when you hit what you're trying not to hit. You can argue that those were good tactics because we didn't lose any airplanes, but there's the other side saying yes, but you weren't as effective. I think it's possible that women in leadsership positions can help us break that tactical cycle. Predictability is the worst thing you can have in tactics. So I think there's room for other viewpoints on what we should do from women who have earned that right to give it to us.

Back to Tailhook for a second. We opened the decade with Tailhook. We closed the decade with an operation in Iraq where every single type of Navy airplane involved in the strike from the E-2s to the S-3s to the EA-6s to the FA-18s, every one of them had women crewmembers. I'm not sure anybody knows that. And the fact that it wasn't a big deal is a statement in itself about how far we've come.

In addition to writing, I'm also an information systems architect at the Naval Post-Graduate School. After my operation, the Navy sent me to the school and I got my Masters degree in information technology. I'm very grateful for that. I design database systems that enable learning over the Internet.

With what you know about simulators, is there an Internet flight training site in your future?

I'm interested in flight safety and I can see doing something with that. I can't fly anymore. You can have a pacemaker, but you can't have a plate in your head. But when I was flying airshows, people would come up to me, in all sincerity, and ask me what it felt like. Young, old, white, black, women, kids, teens, everybody. And some of them were pilots who would just never have the opportunity to fly in one of those machines. At the time I didn't really have an answer, but in one of life's ironies, I've traded the ability to fly for the ability to put readers in the cockpit and tell them what it's like.

Catapult yourself to Bob's website. You can order his books from there.