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Bob Raab

Former USMC Officer/Fighter Pilot
California, USA

Bob Raab is a Marine.  He spent 5 1/2 years on active duty as a pilot with the United States Marine Corps and one year in the Reserves.  He retired as a captain of a major airline in 1995.

How long were you a Marine?  What did you do after you got out of the Marines?

I'm still a Marine.  If you ask someone about their military service, they will respond "I was in the Army or Navy or Air force."  If the Marine Corps was that persons service, their response will be, "I am a Marine".  I was on active duty for 5 1/2 years and in the reserves for one year.  The biggest mistake of my life, from my view, was not making it a career.  I left active service for personal reasons involving family.  In hindsight, again from my view, it would all have been better if I had stayed.  God had a different view.  I believe God has guided my life.  Looking back at every fork in the road, I had no strong feelings about this way or that, but I have always been lead to what turned out to be a good choice.

After active service, I went to work for United Airlines.  I spent 28 years as an airline pilot.  It was a job, probably for me the best kind of job I could have had, but in the long term, a job.  I don't think it is a very rewarding job.  There is no sense of satisfaction unless you are faced with an emergency and handle it well.  In 28 years I was never faced with an emergency.  In spite of overblown press coverage of minor glitches, emergencies seldom occur.

My 28 years with the airline pale in comparison with my 6 1/2 years with the Marine Corps.

What types of planes did you fly?

In the Marine Corps I flew fighters.  I trained in the T-34, T-28, F9F-8 and the F-11F.  The latter two were designed as combat aircraft and used in that capacity before being used in training.  The T-28 was designed for training; however, it was used as a combat aircraft in Vietnam.

My first squadron aircraft was the F4D Skyray, a delta wing, almost supersonic aircraft.  My second aircraft was the F4B Phantom, at the time the fastest combat aircraft in the world.  I cannot tell you how much I appreciated the Marine Corps giving me this $4 million toy and paying me to play with it.

What was the most exciting (or scariest) thing you ever experienced in a plane?

The first time I did a spin in the T-34 I thought, "it can't get more exciting then this."  And then I went through aircraft carrier qualification.  Nothing I have every experienced in an airplane compares with the thrill of landing on and launching from an aircraft carrier.  I have never done anything in life that required as much skill and concentration as a carrier landing.  Think about it.  You're in an aircraft doing 150 miles per hour, on an approach path that is constantly moving, the ship's deck may be pitching up and down, and you have to land on that deck within and area 135 feet long and 20 feet wide.

Now compare that with a typical Air Force runway, which is 10,000-12,000 feet in length.  The touch down area of that runway is 1500 feet and sometimes the landing is beyond that.

How long is an aircraft carrier runway and how do you land and take off in such a short space?

An aircraft carrier really has no runway.  The total length of the flight deck is almost 1100 feet.  Although the flight deck looks huge when you are standing on it, it looks entirely different form the cockpit.

The landing area is about 700 feet in length, but the touch down zone is only 135 feet.  Each catapult is 295 feet long.

A carrier launch, or take off, is the only time in aviation when the pilot is not in control.  The aircraft is hooked up to the catapult and also a "hold back" which keeps the plane from moving forward.  The pilot pushes the throttles up to full power, checks the gages, salutes the catapult officer, puts his head back and waits for the "shot".  The "cat" officer gives the launch signal by going down on one knee and extending his left arm toward the bow of the ship, the hold back releases and in two seconds the plane accelerates from 0 to 150 mph.  It makes an "E" ticket ride seem like a nap.

The landing zone is angled to the left from the fore and aft axis of the ship.  This allows simultaneous landings and take offs.  There are four arresting wires across the deck about 40 feet apart and every plane has a tail hook.  The idea is to get that hook to catch one of the arresting wires, ideally the #3 wire.  If you catch the #1 wire you were too low on approach, if the #4 wire you were too high.

On the edge of the deck to the left of the arresting wires is device similar to a large mirror.  Reflected in the mirror is a large orange ball.  Pilots call it the meatball.  As you fly toward the ship you have to keep the meatball in the center of the mirror.  If you start to go too high the meatball goes high in the mirror and you have to correct.  If you start to go low the meatball goes low in the mirror.  You must keep the ball centered.

The Landing Signals Officer, or LSO, stands near the mirror and talks to the pilot.  The LSO can tell if an aircraft is going high or low before the pilot sees it in the mirror.  The LSO can also tell the speed of the plane just by looking at it.  The pilot has to maintain an exact speed.

The pilot also has to keep his aircraft on the extended centerline of the landing area.  Since the landing area is angled to the left, the centerline is constantly moving away from the aircraft flight path due to the forward speed of the ship.  This requires constant corrections to maintain the correct flight path.

If the pilot maintains the centerline, keeps the correct airspeed, and stays on the glide path (not too high or too low), the LSO signals him that it is OK to land.  If any one of those three parameters is not perfect, the LSO tells the pilot not to land - this is called a "wave off" - and go around for another attempt.

As soon as the pilots feel the wheels touch the deck, he advances the engines to full power, in case all four wires are missed.  If that happens, he flies off to try again.  Not catching a wire is called a bolter.  A bolter is caused by the aircraft's hook skipping or the pilot touching down beyond the arresting wires.  If the pilot pulls the power off when he feels the wheels touch, that is called a cut, a very big NO-NO, and many people will be unhappy with him and will let him know it.  The problem with a cut is that if all four wires are missed the plane will not stop, the cut puts the engines at idle, and when the pilot finally adds power it may be too late for the engines to spool up and he and a multi-million dollar aircraft go into the water.  You never want to take a cut.

In an attempt to measure the stress levels a pilot experiences in combat, several pilots were "wired up" so a record could be made of heart rate, breathing, brain wave activity, etc.  What they discovered was that the stress levels experienced during a night aircraft carrier landing, exceeded those experienced in combat.  However, it is still the most fun you can have operating machinery.

Would you ever want to become an astronaut?

If NASA opened astronaut training for my age group and experience level, I would jump at the chance.  I think it can be safely said that any active or former military pilot would feel the same way.  I wish I had had that opportunity when I was younger.

What makes a good pilot?  Are the skills necessary for a fighter pilot the same skills that would make a good commercial pilot?  Does gender make a difference in either occupation?

Generally, though not always, a pilot can be trained to do both.  A fighter pilot must be able to visualize situations in three dimensions so that he has a good idea where his adversary is at all times.  This is called spatial orientation and is the reason that acrobatics are such an important part of training.  He has to be able to fly "by the seat of his pants", that is the aircraft becomes an extension of his body.  He doesn't have to look at his gages for speed, altitude, or aircraft attitude.  These skills give him total situational awareness.  Some pilots are seemingly born with the "seat of the pants" senses, they are a natural in the cockpit.  They can get into an aircraft they have never seen before, and fly it to its limits.  Bob Hoover comes to mind.  He was a test pilot who put on acrobatic shows into his 70s.  He is possibly the most skilled pilot this country has produced.  Those who are not so blessed can become great fighter pilots through training and hard work, and will develop those "seat of the pants" senses.

Fighter pilots are naturally very aggressive.  They want to be the best and are highly confident and competitive.  It's called pushing the limits of the envelope.  It's an attitude.  If you visit a fighter pilot training base you will see a lot of sports cars.  The movie "Top Gun" shows examples of this attitude, however, in time while the aggressiveness isn't lessened, it is tempered by experience and maturity.

As in any learning situation, students are given grades.  At that point in training where some students are sent to fighters vs. other types of flying, those students generally have the higher flight grades.  However, there are cases where the student with the higher flight grade has not displayed the "attitude", and does not get fighters, where a lower grade with the "attitude" will.

When a fighter pilot becomes an airline pilot, basically all he has to do is tone down his aggressiveness.  Passenger safety and comfort are the priorities in airline flying.  An airline pilot spends much more time flying his instruments, that is he concentrates on what the gages are telling him about his aircraft's speed, altitude, heading, and position relative to the horizon.  However, he also uses that "seat of the pants" thing.

Other than the obvious, one difference in flying and driving is that the pilot must think ahead of his aircraft.  He has to anticipate and plan for what's coming.  Actually, a driver should do the same, but most do not.

As for gender, I don't believe it is a factor.  During WW II the WASPs, Womens Air Service Pilots, played a major roll on the home front.  These women flew all types of aircraft, delivering them from the factory to air bases.  I have heard many stories where a impromptu "dog fight", that's what we call aerial combat, ensued between two aircraft who happened upon each other.  When they landed and took off there helmets, the victorious pilot often had long hair and was wearing a WASP patch.  A humbling experience for the other very confident male fighter pilot.  Today there are many women flying combat aircraft in all branches of the Armed Forces, and yes, they get to launch and land on aircraft carriers.

I have read that women have a more natural senses of spatial orientation which would give them an advantage in aerial combat and acrobatics.

As an airline captain I flew with many women co-pilots.  As with male pilots the level individual skills varied depending on experience.  However, given the same training and years of experience, a woman pilot can be just as accomplished or even more so than her male counterpart.

What were you doing when Alan Shepard and John Glenn made the first attempts to "go where no man has gone before" and became respectively, the first American in space and the first American to orbit the Earth?

Alan Shepard became the first American in space on 5 May 1961.  I was exactly four weeks away from college graduation and a Commission in the Marine Corps.  I knew I was going to Naval Flight Training, the same training he had finished years earlier.  I was a bit awed by that fact, but definitely excited and looking forward to it.  I had already purchased my Marine Officer's Dress White Uniform.  I went home, took it out of the box, and put it on.  It was a perfect fit.

I began Navy Flight Training in Pensacola, Florida in June of 1961.  When John Glenn orbited the earth on 20 Feb. 1962, I was in that phase of training dedicated to formation flying.  Formation flying is what the Navy's Blue Angels do so well.  I had my fourth formation training flight on that day.

John Glenn was a Naval Aviator and a Marine.  At one time he went through the same training I was now experiencing.  Just like those of us in training at the time, the necessity of maintaining the three basics - airspeed, heading, and altitude - were pounded into his head as well.

The radio news reports of his flight were connected to the loud speaker system in the squadron area.  Because the orbital path of a spacecraft is not a perfect circle, its distance from the earth is constantly changing.  The news reporter pointed this variation in altitude.  One of the instructors, a Navy pilot, said to the students, "Listen to that, if you can't maintain your altitude better then he's doing, you'll never graduate and get your wings".  That was the first indication we had that flight instructors had a sense of humor.

Doing this interview has called up many memories and past feelings.  Looking at my Log Book, all pilots keep one, to find out what I was doing on 20 Feb. 1962, really dug deep into my emotions.  I "experienced" many of the feelings, aspirations, and dreams, I had then.  I am very thankful for the opportunities I have had.  Yes, as I said in the other part of this interview, I would liked to have been an accomplished dancer, but I wouldn't have missed the military and flying experiences for anything.  Truth is, I could have done both.  The appreciation of the arts and especially dance, had not yet been awakened in me.

If you have more than one dream, don't give up one for another.  Follow them all.  There is time in life to do that.  You can be a dancer, pilot, astronomer, photographer, writer, and explorer, all in one lifetime, all at the same time.  Some at a professional level, some at a hobby level.  Do anything that you love.  And then when you are in your 90s, you can get out your "Log Book" and "experience" all of those joys again.

Read Bob's biographical interview

- 5 March 2003


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Last Updated:
14 March 2003

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