Aviation History: Remembering Harry Robertson

Read Time:8 Minutes
Image Source: Harry Robertson, 1990

By Emma Rasmussen, Correspondent

On Oct 9, Aviation Hall of Famer and pioneering air safety inventor Harry Robertson passed away at the age 87. Robertson was a friend and generous donor to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for over three decades, with the university holding a prominent place in his heart from the very beginning of his aviation career. Robertson leaves behind a legacy of improved helicopter safety – an accomplishment that was achieved through his ingenuity, curiosity, desire to preserve human life, and affinity for aviation. His career has inspired succeeding generations of aviation safety professionals, with his monetary support launching the Robertson Aircraft Crash Investigation Laboratory at the Prescott, Ariz. campus. The unique “crash lab” is the largest and most comprehensive of its kind in the United States.

The life of Harry Robertson began in Phoenix, Ariz. on Oct. 2, 1934 when he was born to S. Harry Robertson, Jr. and Doris Duffield Robertson. His love of aviation was evident from a very young age, and at the age of four, Robertson had built his first airplane model. He then felt inspired to enter national aircraft model flying competitions. By age nineteen, Robertson had acquired five flying records from these competitive events. Throughout his childhood, he carved many aircraft models out of wood with his first pocket knife. His love of aviation was not unprecedented – his forefathers William and Frank Robertson founded and ran Robertson Aviation Corporation following the First World War.

By the time Robertson entered his teenage years, his father had acquired his grandfather’s photo engraving company. He spent his high school years working alongside his father, eagerly using his first job as an opportunity to learn from his family’s entrepreneurial spirit. His interest in learning about how things work, both in a business and a technical sense, led to his success as an inventor and entrepreneur as an adult. “A lot of my buddies felt sorry for me because I had to go to work and they all got to play football and do all these things. But that’s not how I felt, I could hardly wait to go. I could learn stuff and I wanted to know how to work cameras and printing presses,” he told Williams News in a 2019 interview.

After a colorful adolescence, Robertson had to look to the future. When he was in high school, he contacted Embry-Riddle School of Aviation in Florida to start considering his future in the aviation industry. However, Robertson’s father was adamant that he acquire a general education before pursuing a flying career. Robertson instead attended Arizona State College (now Arizona State University) in the pursuit of a technical degree with a business focus. Not forgetting his desire to fly, Robertson joined the United States Air Force just months after finishing college in 1956.

Flying was not the only thing on Robertson’s mind in 1956. Just a few months before reporting for duty, a Trans World Airlines (TWA) Lockheed Constellation and a United Airlines Douglas DC-7 collided over the Grand Canyon, bringing 128 lives to an end in an instant. The accident was regarded as one of the worst of its kind at the time, and it became a watershed event in aviation history. The Federal Aviation Act of 1958 was passed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, introducing the Federal Aviation Agency (the precursor to today’s Federal Aviation Administration) to oversee and regulate aviation safety. Robertson was moved by the tragedy, and opted to travel to the Grand Canyon to assist with the recovery efforts.

This was not the first time Robertson was exposed to an air accident – he had witnessed one in childhood at Luke Air Force Base when his father brought him along on a business engagement. He witnessed an additional fatal accident while hunting quail in the desert as a college student. It quickly became apparent to Robertson that aviation safety was something he desired to improve, especially after investigating six more air accidents while serving in the Air Force. Aviation safety became of greater concern to him when he was trained to fly the Boeing B-47 Stratojet, an aircraft that suffered many fiery accidents during its brief use by the Air Force. Robertson thoroughly educated himself on the aircraft by meeting with mechanics and the engineers that designed it. Crashworthiness and survivability factors in particular fascinated Robertson.

When Robertson’s time in the Air Force was coming to an end, he endeavored to put an end to post-crash fires. “There’s no reason for someone to survive a crash and then die in a fire,” said Robertson. In 1960, Robertson fully left the Air Force, but continued flying with the Arizona Army and Air National Guard until 1973. Inspired and ready to begin a new chapter with his newfound knowledge, he formed Robertson Research Engineers to seek financial assistance for the research and development of crashworthy fuel systems. It wasn’t until 1961 that Robertson would finally get his big break, when Flight Safety Foundation’s Aviation Safety and Engineering Research, Inc. with the United States Army agreed to fund his efforts. For seven years, Robertson crash-tested dozens of aircraft fitted with his inventions. In 1970, the first helicopter of the Vietnam War was fitted with his crashworthy fuel systems. The Army, Navy, and Air Force all retrofitted their aircraft with Robertson’s novel and safety innovation. According to the National Aviation Hall of Fame, over 40% of all Army helicopter crash fatalities resulted from post-crash fires.

Robertson went on to complete five editions of the United States Army’s “Crash Survival Design Guide.” This publication is still the most cutting-edge of its kind in 2021. Robertson left Flight Safety Foundation in 1970, joining Arizona State University’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences to conduct additional research and lead 7500 students with his International Center for Safety Education’s Crash Survival Investigators School. Robertson’s school was the first of its kind. In 1972, Robertson’s dream school (finally called Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University by this point) officially recognized his contributions to aviation safety by awarding him an honorary doctorate.

Four years after the first helicopter was fitted with his crashworthy fuel system, Robertson was approached by Hughes Helicopters and Boeing to create crashworthy auxiliary fuel tanks, so that they could extend the range of some of their aircraft without compromising safety. In response to this request, Robertson Aviation was founded to satisfy the needs of his customers. An estimated 8,000 lives have been saved by Robertson’s crashworthy fuel systems, thanks to the 75% decrease in post-crash fires that resulted from years of careful research. Robertson’s new business also expanded into automotive safety after a serious incident at the Indianapolis 500 in 1973.

In 1985, Robertson’s relationship with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University became increasingly solidified when he moved his aviation safety program from Arizona State University to the fledgling Prescott, Ariz. campus. Thus, Robertson Safety Institute was born. Since joining forces with Embry-Riddle more than thirty years ago, Robertson has generously donated to the university, funding educational programs, athletics, new facilities, and scholarships. Harry Robertson may be remembered most for his contributions to aviation safety, but above all else, his story reminds us all to embrace and welcome curiosity.

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