Rob “The Tumbling Bear” Harrison

Posted January 7, 2009 in Arts & Culture

He’s a master aerobatic pilot, respected attorney, innovative aerospace engineer, seasoned mechanic and when he skis, he skis black diamonds. He’s raced motorcycles and bicycles, and was a top-ranked swimmer. Still, the seemingly unending list of accomplishments for this true talent stands to get a smidge lengthier. 


This weekend, Rob “The Tumbling Bear” Harrison plans to slice the skies in his Zlin 50 airplane, performing at the 34th Cable Air Show in Upland. Flying in shows is something the world-famous pilot has done hundreds of times since 1992—but this will be Cable’s first appearance since a near-fatal crash at a Modesto show last May, which put him on the sidelines for months.


“Most people don’t get a second chance, but that’s not always true,” Harrison says, at the workbench in his Cable hangar, where he restores guitars (yes, add that to the aforementioned list, too). “We know of a number of guys who’ve crashed, and who’ve come back and continued to fly a number of air shows.”


Harrison wants to continue. He’s recently been flying regularly, performing his routine with ease and managing the gravitational loads imposed on his body (at times up to ten times his weight). 


“I’m great in the airplane,” Harrison says. “I’m OK on the ground. Getting in and out of the airplane’s a little tough and we’re trying to find a way to make it look a little less tough.”


He’s still recovering, thanks in large part to his wife (also a pilot), Susan Newman-Harrison, who’s maintained his spirits during the dire moments. For instance, after he underwent over 16 hours of surgery, Harrison faced serious problems in the hospital due to the shock and trauma. “I came very close to turning my face to the wall and cashing in my chips,” Harrison says, “but Susie wouldn’t let me do that.”


Harrison was hospitalized for over two weeks, but doctors said he wouldn’t be on his feet for roughly six months. However, due to an astoundingly expeditious recovery, he was cleared to walk far earlier than anticipated. And he was back in a plane not long after that.


“My feet still hurt, I’m not going to go and run a marathon,” he says. “But in general, I’m doing remarkably well.”


Harrison does remarkably well with everything. His Tumbling Bear persona finds him identifying with crowds of all ages, particularly children. He performs in many local shows, including those at the March Air Reserve Base, Hemet, Thermal and Chino. And his affable personality magnetizes those seeking a moment with the Bear at each show; he’ll fly for 15 minutes, yet autograph for hours. Although, “we’ve gotta do that sitting down, now,” he admits.


After retiring from the U.S. Forest Service as a flight test pilot and engineer, Harrison took up performing. “I labored under the lunatic delusion that I could make some money flying air shows.”


Yet things haven’t been as easy as showing up with a plane and a cache of tricks. Harrison says that it’s actually a crowded field. “The big problem in air show flying is getting the show, [as] there’s a lot of competition.” Factor in expenses for fuel, maintenance and upgrades, and aerobatics becomes a costly proposition in more ways than its inherent risk.


Harrison generally flies about 20 shows per year; this year he’s aiming for four or five. If he feels better next year (he’s optimistic), he’ll be back to performing on a full-time basis.


“I’m not much of a spectator,” Harrison says, referring to his impenetrable participatory desires. “I played football at Oregon State; I haven’t been to a football game since. I’ve never been to a swimming meet, I have no intention of going. I don’t go to motorcycle races. I don’t like to be on that side of the fence . . . It’s hard to sit on the porch when you run with the big dogs.”


Sitting in his hangar is a new Zlin 50 that has yet to be painted the trademark yellow of Rob’s former plane. It won’t be in service this weekend—instead, look for his white Zlin with red and black stripes dancing in the atmosphere with other performers, including pilots Doug Jardine, Jon Melby and Dr. D.


And while Harrison must fly with a full stomach, what’s filling his head just days before he’s to perform once again?


“I’m not sure; I’m not really in touch with my feelings about it. It’s just another air show,” he says. “We’ll see how it goes Friday. If it goes well, I’ll be excited.”


Cable Air Show at the Cable Airport, 1749 W. 13th St., Upland; Gates at 8AM; $7 for adults, $5 for children


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