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July 1998

Norm Zrubek engineers his flight into retirement

Norm Zrubek

When you enjoy your job as much as Norm Zrubek enjoys his, it's hard to contemplate leaving. "I've had a few sleepless nights, standing in the corner, biting my nails," he confesses. However, Norm plans to give "skiing, playing tennis, and a little beer drinking" a try after spending the last three decades retrofitting aircraft for NCAR's Research Aviation Facility.

Norm, RAF's original aeronatical engineer, will be retiring later this summer. "That'll give me 30 years, which is what I was shooting for," he says.

In Norm's office at Jeffco, you'll find two Outstanding Performance Awards for technical support, one received in 1984 and the other in 1997. However, the best evidence of Norm's ingenuity can be found down the hall, in the hangar that houses NCAR's aircraft. Each of the nine aircraft operated by RAF since the mid-1960s, from sailplane to high-altitude jet, has borne the stamp of Norm's modifications. A 1986 article in Business and Commercial Aviation posits that Norm "has done more science aircraft mods than anybody."

Norm grew up in Cunningham, Kansas, not far from the aviation hub of Wichita. He got his aeronautical engineering degree from Wichita State University while pulling the graveyard shift at Boeing, working on B-47s and B-52s. When he graduated in 1962, "quite frankly, Boeing made me the worst job offer of anybody, after investing all this time and money in me."

Since he wanted to come to Colorado, Norm accepted a position at Martin Marietta, where he worked on the first two Titan missile programs. He then joined Force 24, "a very elite group that took Martin Marietta into the space business." Norm takes special pride in having worked on the Voyager spacecraft that surveyed Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune in the late 1970s and 1980s. "We worked on the initial concept for Voyager in the mid-1960s. Here I was, an aircraft type, getting into the space business. It was the neatest thing."

However, life at Martin had a down side for Norm. "It was a huge organization. You'd just work on one small piece of a project and not get to see the end product. I can't say it was boring, but it wasn't what I wanted to do."

NCAR and its fledgling aviation group turned out to fill the bill. Norm's task was to take NSF/NCAR aircraft and find ways to attach research instruments without jeopardizing the integrity of the planes. Norm's solutions have inspired awe among colleagues in their simplicity and elegance. "They make optimum use of available space, they cost as little as possible, and they always work," writes one fan. Major retrofits like the Electra Doppler radar have hinged on highly complex engineering from Norm and colleagues, but his smaller-scale ideas also have made a big difference. For instance:

It hasn't all been smooth sailing. Norm's first retrofit for RAF, in 1969, was a balsa-wood airfoil used to track airflow alongside the nose of the De Havilland Buffalo twin-engine turboprop. "We were flying over Littleton, and all of a sudden the [device's] signal just disappeared. We stopped and looked and that sucker was gone. We scratched our heads and said, 'No wonder the signal stopped.' "

Sometimes Norm has had to practice social as well as aeronautical engineering, mainly in working with researchers to rein in and reshape their instrument concepts. "Scientists show up with the darnedest stuff," he notes, "and you have to figure out how to get it on the plane." As demand for aircraft use has intensified and research spheres have broadened, the challenges have involved back-to-back projects with wildly differing needs and demands. "It seems like just about every program has a unique request," says Norm.

Not that he hasn't had a good time along the way. "It's a lot of fun to bring a new plane up. I'm really sorry I'm not going to be here for the mid-sized jet acquisition. I'm also disappointed about the WB-57--we'd put in a tremendous amount of time and energy to support it." (After recurring structural problems emerged in the WB-57, a former Air Force reconnaisance plane with few counterparts in research use, NCAR reconsidered the high cost of maintenance and operations. In the absence of a long-term NSF commitment to the aircraft, NCAR decided this spring to return the WB-57 to NASA's Johnson Space Center and to focus attention and funds on the potential acquisition of a mid-sized jet in the next several years. Johnson Space Center plans to make the WB-57 available to research customers.)

All in all, says Norm, "it's been a hell of a ride, as they say." If you're curious what impresses this master of aircraft restructuring, take a look at the space shuttle the next time it's riding piggyback on a Boeing 747. Says Norm, with an inspired grin: "Now that's an aircraft mod!" •BH


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