Texas Unit Soars with 'Accidental Aviator'
Maj. Steven J. Alvarez
Public Affairs Officer
Pegasus Composite Squadron
Contrails in the sky are usually indicators of where an aircraft has come from and where it’s heading. If Civil Air Patrol Maj. Robert F. Morris’ life produced vapor lines, they would represent a lifetime of aviation achievement both in and out of uniform.
The second and fourth Saturday of each month at the Texas Wing’s Pegasus Composite Squadron, Morris busily moves around the building, teaching a cadet class or meeting with senior members, giving out the most valuable of commodities – his time and experience – to youth and adult volunteers.
When he talks, people listen.
“Maj. Morris is a deep well of aviation knowledge and experience,” said Lt. Col. J.D. Draper, Pegasus squadron commander. “As an aerospace education officer he has imparted knowledge of aircraft systems learned as a naval fixed-wing pilot and later as a rotorcraft aviator in the U.S. Army during Vietnam,” he added.
“He is also living history.”
Morris is a flight instrument and flight safety instructor. As a Pegasus member he has taught several ground school classes and served as an assistant aerospace education officer.
His career in aviation spans more than 60 years if his volunteer service is included. The accomplishments are dizzying – thousands of flight hours logged, multiple Federal Aviation Administration ratings achieved, several dozen airframes flown, wings earned from the U.S. Navy and 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’ 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, the vessel 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.”
After the war, Morris attended college. He majored in education and hoped to teach and be a counselor, but life encouraged him to change direction.
“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 had no intention of going back in,” he 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 earned a better score.
Months later Morris got a letter from the Navy ordering him to flight training.
He thought to himself, “Why not?” and thus began a decades-long accidental career in aviation that led Morris through the U.S. Marine Corps as a fighter pilot, as an 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 on the top of hills is a challenge, but you get good at it with practice, like anything else that you do.”
He and his crew were called to move “all kinds of stuff” in Vietnam, he said. One day they were tasked with recovering a downed airplane. They connected to the aircraft and began to lift it out when Viet Cong attacked.
“When we got there all the people on the ground were lying 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 penetrated the floor and hit Morris’s left leg, knocking his foot off the rudder pedal.
“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 Marines when he was notified that some needed to be ferried to a fire base. After picking them up, he was airborne when he was told that battle-wounded Marines 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 recalled. With no safe place to land the large, heavy-lift chopper, 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.
The feat of backing up the helicopter’s rear ramp onto the hill’s edge while the aircraft hovered earned him the Silver Star for gallantry in action. The wounded survived.
These days Morris, 86, might not be carving through the skies, but he hasn’t slowed down.
He’s an aviation advocate who helps marshal future pilots into the clouds with his knowledge. In addition to his Pegasus squadron duties, he volunteers at a military museum and teaches part-time in a federal STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program.
Luckily for many both in and out of CAP, Morris was an accidental aviator waiting to happen.