Aircraft contrails in the sky are usually indicators of where an aircraft has come from and where it is heading. If the life of retired U.S. Army Maj. Robert F. Morris had vapor lines, they would represent a lifetime of aviation achievement both in and out of uniform.
Morris is a flight instrument and flight safety instructor. His career in aviation spans more than 50 years if you include his volunteer service and the accomplishments are dizzying; thousands of flight hours logged, multiple FAA ratings achieved, several dozen airframes flown, wings earned from the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army, service in two wars, a Silver Star, Bronze Star, and 13 Air Medals, including one with a “V” device for valor during his tour in Vietnam as a Chinook pilot.
And it all happened by accident.
Morris’s military odyssey began when he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve at 17. In 1952, he was ordered to LSM 547, a ship headed to Korea. After several port stops, they picked up an Army unit and headed to the war.
“We arrived in Inchon harbor and the artillery was firing just over the north hills. It was the first time I had heard shots fired in anger,” Morris recalled. “The battleship Missouri and the cruiser USS St. Paul were firing over us at the beach,” he said.
After Korea, Morris attended college. He majored in education and had hopes to teach and be a counselor, but life encouraged him to change his heading.
“My roommate in college was going to Dallas to take a test to become a naval pilot,” Morris said smiling. His roommate needed a ride, so Morris drove him. As his friend took the exam, Morris read magazines in another room.
“I was asked by an enlisted man if I wanted to take the test and told him I did not as I just got out of the Navy and hand no intention of going back in,” Morris said. “An hour later he asked again and I was bored and said ‘OK’ just for something to do.”
Morris finished the test before his roommate who had started much earlier. He also got a better score. Months later Morris got a letter from the U.S. Navy ordering him to flight training.
Morris thought to himself, “Why not?” and thus began a decade’s long accidental career in aviation that led Morris through the U.S. Marine Corps as a fighter pilot, a U.S. Army chief warrant officer flying CH-47 Chinooks, and as a civilian pilot.
“Going to helicopter school was like buying a one-way ticket to Vietnam and you had to work 365 days to get a ticket back home,” Morris said. “Moving 10,300-pound loads hanging off the bottom of the aircraft all day and landing to the top of hills is a challenge, but you get good at it with practice, like anything else that you do.”
Morris said he and his crew were called to move “all kinds of stuff” in Vietnam. One day they were tasked with recovering an airplane that was shot down. They connected to the aircraft and began to lift it out when the Viet Cong attacked them.
“When we got there all the people on the ground were laying down and had their weapons pointing the same direction,” Morris said. “At about 200 feet above the ground, two guys stepped out of a cement building and started shooting up at us with automatic weapons. I was flying and … my gunners were firing back and the load was trying to fly into us … the rounds were coming up through the floor all around....”
One round came through the floor and hit Morris’s left leg and knocked his foot off the rudder peddle. He told his co-pilot he was hit and the co-pilot took control of the aircraft.
“My leg started to feel less painful and I did not want to look at it so I ran my hand down the back of my leg to feel how big a hole I had in it. There was no hole,” Morris said. “After we landed we looked in the chin bubble of the aircraft and found the round. It looked like a 50 cent piece and was very sharp all the way around it.”
On another mission, Morris was flying in support of U.S. Marines and he was notified that some Marines needed to be ferried to a fire base. After picking up the Marines, he was airborne when he was told that there were battle-wounded Marines that needed medical evacuation at a hilltop fire base with no clear place to land.
“When we got there the ammunition dump was blowing up and the ridge line it was located on did not have a safe place to let them off,” Morris said. With no safe place to land the large, heavy lift aircraft, Morris performed a heroic and skillful maneuver. “Make a long story short, I backed the aircraft up to the edge of the cliff and the flight engineer talked me down and we brought the six wounded aboard,” Morris said.
These days the 83-year-old Morris might not be carving through the skies, but he hasn’t slowed down. He is an aviation advocate who helps marshal future pilots into the clouds with his knowledge. He volunteers at a military museum, teaches part-time in a federal STEM program and serves as an assistant aerospace education officer with the Civil Air Patrol in Austin, Texas.
Luckily, Morris was an accidental aviator waiting to happen.