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Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Legacy of Harry Robertson

By Chris Baur

Often when we think about technology, images of gadgets and gizmos developed in virtual reality by far out people in far off places might come to mind. But there are other forms of cutting-edge technology we take for granted day after day, year after year. This usually happens when something keeps working and doesn’t require much attention. In fact, sometimes we better remember things that constantly give us problems like a poor engine design, faulty electrical system or an ex-wife’s attorney.

Well one of those parts of the aircraft that works well, lasts a long time and is seldom discussed in the hangar or at the club is the Robertson fuel system. Somewhere in the recesses of our mental file cabinet of systems knowledge resides the Robertson folder. Harry Robertson has developed several generations of crashworthy fuel tanks, valves, plumbing and restraints that bear his name and his vision. If you have ever been shot at or survived a mishap without burning, the technology of the Robertson fuel system probably had something to do with it. In fact, prior to the crashworthy fuel system, 43 percent of all Army aviation fatalities in survivable helicopter crashes were due to post-crash fire. Installation of the system reduced the number to essentially zero.

Who is Harry Robertson? Harry wanted to be a pilot as far back as he can recall (sound familiar). As a youngster he began to building and experimenting with model aircraft. Harry said two tragic events had made an impression on him and probably oriented him towards a path that would change aviation. As a teenager, he witnessed a P-51 crash into a fireball on takeoff, while accompanying his father on a business call at Luke AFB. The second event was the mid-air collision of a TWA Lockheed Constellation and a United DC-7 at the Grand Canyon near Harry’s home in Arizona.

Harry began flying in earnest at age 15, had the delight to fly gliders at 16, and eventually trained in the U.S. Air Force as a fighter pilot. But the USAF decided they needed B-47 bomber pilots more than fighter pilots, so Harry transitioned into the Strategic Air Command and became a plank owner of the early Cold War nuclear mission. It was during this time, due to several post-crash fires, Harry discovered a portion of the B-47’s landing gear was actually anchored near the fuselage fuel tanks. A new design philosophy would be necessary to reduce fuel spillage.

After the military, Harry began working on crashworthy fuel systems, ultimately founding Robertson Aviation with an initial purchase order that was awarded from Hughes Helicopters. Harry told me “since 1960, Robertson’s focus was on keeping fuel in containers in deceleration events.” Harry perfected some unique testing methods, involving flying, swinging, flinging and dropping of aircraft. This was to both understand the effect of crash impact forces on fuel systems and the forces experienced on aircraft occupants in relation to fuel system components.

These experiments proved very effective at testing and validating fuel system designs in a variety of crash situations. Ultimately, Robertson was able to create fuel systems that would survive crashes that the aircraft’s occupants could not. It wasn’t long before Roberston began to provide crash injury training and investigation, along with post-crash analysis and consultation. You cannot keep Harry away from what he enjoys most, which is flying.

In 1961, Robertson joined the Arizona National Guard flying the C-97 medical evacuation transport, the infamous “Oh-One Bird Dog,” the “Beaver,” and various helicopters. In fact, for more than 36 years Harry was the proud owner of a Hughes 369H helicopter, serial number 0004.

You may recall the first solo around-the-world flight in a helicopter was flown in a Bell 206B3 “Jet Ranger III.” What you may not be aware of was the fuel tank installed in the rear cabin to extend the range of this helicopter. According to Harry, this specialized fuel system consisted of a cabin-mounted 91-gallon fuel tank, all-gravity feed, requiring no fuel management such as switching, pumping or transferring of fuel. The Robertson fuel system doubled the Jet Ranger’s range for the record breaking flight, flown by Ron Bower in 24 days, 4 hours and 36 minutes. Harry quoted Ron Bower: “The system never leaked a drop and I never had a fuel system concern.”

Today, Harry and his team at Robertson are taking their experience in fuel tank design for aircraft to military vehicles. Seldom does a day go by that we don’t hear of our troops being injured and killed due to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Harry’s applying his proven technology gained through of both aviation and auto racing to protecting the men and women of the armed forces from post-crash fire caused by accident or the rigors of combat.

Harry Robertson, helicopter pilot and American aviation pioneer.


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