By Eric Edwards

Few names in the aircraft survivability industry could be more synonymous with the word “leader” than that of retired Rear Admiral Robert (Bob) Gormley. Bob, who passed away in June at the age of 95, was a combat-proven aviator, decorated air wing and ship commander, successful business manager, long-time advisor on many boards and initiatives, and a steadfast advocate for the advancement of the survivability discipline. In short, Bob was a major force in helping to make the industry what it is today. And it’s altogether appropriate that the National Defense Industrial Association’s (NDIA’s) Combat Survivability Division (CSD)—an organization Bob helped establish and chair for 16 years—presents its annual leadership award in the name of the man whose calm but commanding presence helped guide and grow the community for many years. Accordingly, the Joint Aircraft Survivability Program Office would like to posthumously recognize Bob Gormley for his longstanding record of Excellence in Survivability.


Born in Ventura, CA, in 1925, Bob began his distinguished defense career in 1943, joining the U.S. Navy while the country was in the throes of World War II. After spending a year at the University of Texas, he entered the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating in June of 1947 (as a member of the class of ’48, the academy’s last wartime-accelerated class).

Upon receiving his officer’s commission, Bob served two deployments on the destroyer USS Putnam, most notably supporting United Nations operations in Palestine when the Arab-Israeli War broke out in 1948. The young officer then gained the title of Naval Aviator in 1950 and flew with several carrier aircraft squadrons during the Korean War. He also served as a flight instructor and was part of the USS Saratoga’s fighter squadron supporting the U.S. intervention in Lebanon in 1958.

Next, Bob attended the Naval War College and was assigned to the Navy’s Operational Test and Evaluation Force, where he was responsible for evaluating various air weapon systems. He then took a mid-career sabbatical to complete graduate studies in international studies at Harvard University, where he earned a master’s degree in public administration and gained a much better understanding of the forces that ultimately shape world events.

When the military then turned its attention to the hostilities in Vietnam, Bob commanded a combat fighter squadron and, later, a carrier air wing on the USS Independence. He also completed an assignment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Systems Analysis) in Washington, DC, before returning to Southeast Asia to serve as Chief of Operations and Plans for the Navy’s five-carrier task force in the region. Next, he commanded the combat stores ship USS White Plains before taking over command of the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier at the time, the USS John F. Kennedy, as it sailed throughout the Mediterranean and north Atlantic.

Bob received his flag rank in 1973 and then served as Inspector General of the Atlantic Command and, later, Chief of the Studies, Analysis, and Gaming Agency of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before finally retiring from the Navy in July of 1976.


During his many years of active duty service, Bob witnessed first-hand the significant effects that aircraft safety and survivability issues could have on the Warfighter. In fact, on 12 December 1965, (then) Commander Gormley (shown in Figure 1) was himself involved in a fiery incident on the deck of the USS Independence that underscored the importance of the work that he would continue in long after his military career was over.

Figure 1. CDR Bob “Big Daddy” Gormley (U.S. Navy Photo).

As detailed by fellow aviator Robert Klotz in a 2005 article in The Hook magazine [1], the Independence was returning from a tour in Vietnam and approaching Naval Station Norfolk on the Virginia coast. Bob—call-sign “Big Daddy”—was the commanding officer of Fighter Squadron 41 (the “Black Aces,” shown in Figure 2) and was preparing to pilot the lead F-4 Phantom II in a flyoff to nearby Naval Air Station (NAS) Oceana. In the seat behind him sat his radar intercept officer (RIO), LT Harold “Wild Bill” Coday, who was holding the commander’s neatly pressed and medallioned dress blue uniform in his lap so he would have it for the ship’s homecoming ceremonies once they were on the ground.

Figure 2. F-4 Phantom Black Aces Launching From the USS Independence in 1965 (U.S. Navy Photo).

However, as the outboard waist catapult launched the F-4 forward, a violent explosion occurred around the aircraft, blowing several sailors overboard and engulfing nearby planes, personnel, and equipment in a huge fireball. Klotz initially assumed Bob’s plane had been blown apart. Soon appearing through the smoke and flames, however, was the sight of the commander and his airborne F-4, now flying “convertible” style.

Immediately after the explosion, RIO Coday had heeded a frantic radio call to “Eject, Eject, Eject!” and had jettisoned the plane’s canopy (and himself) skyward. But not Bob. Described by Klotz as “one of the most skillful displays of flying proficiency [he] was ever privileged to witness,” Big Daddy had kept operating the plane throughout all the fire and chaos and now came on the radio to work the problem. In a calm but deliberate voice, Bob reported no detectable operational damage but asked the tower to send another plane to visually inspect the exterior of his now-circling aircraft, as well as to pick up LT Coday (who had parachuted into the ocean) and report back on his condition. (Because of their orientation, F-4 RIOs were vulnerable to back injuries when ejecting, so Bob was eager to check on him.)

As for the cause of the explosion, Bob’s plane had been launched with only a partial fuel load in the detachable belly tank. A half-filled external fuel tank was a definite no-go condition for a carrier launch, as the catapult’s rapid acceleration forces could cause a powerful aft-moving hydraulic ram action in the plane’s tank. And that’s exactly what happened. Upon launch, the fuel tank’s nosecone was instantaneously sucked inward, the tailcone was blown out, and 4,000 gallons of jet fuel was sprayed onto the ship’s deck and immediately set ablaze by the plane’s twin afterburners [2].

Thankfully, Bob was able to land safely at NAS Oceana, and Coday and the other sailors were quickly fished out of the Atlantic and given medical treatment. In the end, 16 sailors were injured, 1 aircraft (a nearby F-4) was destroyed, and several other aircraft were fire-damaged. The only other casualty in the incident was Bob’s dress uniform, which he reportedly was not at all happy about.


This experience, and many others that Bob gained while in uniform and combat, provided an invaluable foundation for the analytical, developmental, and advisory work in which he would later be involved. It would also make him a highly sought-after and trusted advisor for countless Government and contractor organizations and technical initiatives. These organizations include the Office of Secretary of Defense (Intelligence), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Naval Research Advisory Committee, the Naval Air Warfare Center, the National Research Council, the National Academy of Sciences, the Defense Science Board, the Joint Technical Coordinating Group on Aircraft Survivability (now JASP), and many others.

As a civilian, Bob would also serve as President of The Oceanus Company, Senior Vice President of Projects International, Inc., and consultant to many of the industry’s major contractors, including Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, Northrop Grumman, Rolls-Royce, Alliant Techsystems, Leading Systems, Inc., Lear Astronics, Loral, Frontier, and the SURVICE Engineering Company. He also coordinated efforts to complete the sale of defense materiel (including U.S. aircraft) to countries such as Greece, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and China.

To every organization and project in which he was involved, Bob was able to bring a unique combination of technical, operational, and political expertise and influence in a wide range of technical areas. These areas included unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs); airborne reconnaissance and surveillance; tactical air warfare; counterterrorism; network-centric operations; advanced technologies for future aircraft, aircraft carriers, and naval forces; littoral and amphibious warfare; fire support; air traffic control; mine countermines; aircraft, ship, and weapons survivability; military requirements formulation; operations research; and test and evaluation planning.


Arguably, the most notable achievement Bob made in the field of aircraft survivability was helping to establish and lead the Combat Survivability Division of the American Defense Preparedness Association (ADPA) (now the National Defense Industrial Association) in the late 1980s. While at the JTCG/AS Survivability Symposium in December of 1987, he proposed surveying attendees (and then others) with the idea of establishing a dedicated aircraft survivability organization. Receiving an overwhelmingly positive response—as well as an expressed desire to expand the proposed organization’s scope to include ground and sea system survivability—Bob then approached the ADPA President with the proposal to stand up the organization as an independently governed ADPA division [3].

And thus was born the CSD, with Bob serving as its first chairman. The new organization’s mission was to “enhance survivability as an essential element of overall combat mission effectiveness [including] promoting communications and the exchange of survivability technical information between individuals and organizations that develop requirements for, design, build, and tactically employ military weapon systems.” And in Bob, this mission could’ve had no greater champion.

During his 16-year tenure as CSD chairman, Bob was adept at leveraging his extensive experience and military network to increase the awareness of combat survivability among senior uniformed and civilian officials in the Services and the Department of Defense. He also began holding regular division meetings and oversaw planning of the division’s first national symposium, held at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, in 1989. In all of this, Bob brought a tireless rigor and emphasis on quality for which he, and the division, would become known.

Based on the success of the first and following survivability symposia, the annual fall event became a widely anticipated and attended gathering for the community, with the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) eventually becoming the permanent venue. The unofficial slogan for the division thus became, “If you’re in the survivability business, Monterey is the place to be in November.”


Not surprisingly, Bob was the recipient of numerous awards and honors throughout his distinguished military and civilian career. These include the Legion of Merit with Combat “V” (three awards), Distinguished Flying Cross (two awards), Bronze Star (two awards), Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V” (three awards), and Air Medal (eight awards). Perhaps no award or medal, however, could better attest to the influence and impact he had on the survivability industry—and the people in it—than the words of other leaders in the community. The following are excerpts from some of those leaders.

Mr. Kevin Crosthwaite (former Director of the Survivability/ Vulnerability Information Analysis Center [SURVIAC]):

“I met Bob when I was a new employee at SURVIAC. He had been sent out as a consultant for the JTCG/AS to scout and advise the new agency in the realm of aircraft survivability. He was liberal with his advice. At the time, I thought he was a pain in the rear. If I had only known.

Bob made a huge impact on the aircraft survivability community. I think he had his biggest influence in getting volunteers to put in more effort. He appealed to their professionalism and patriotism and was always ready with logic on why any task worth doing was worth doing right. He was demanding. He made a difference. I know he made a difference in me.”

Mr. James Foulk (survivability leader at the Army Ballistic Research Laboratory and Sikorsky and founder of the SURVICE Engineering Company):

“Bob was an important person in my career and a pleasure to work with. Working closely with him to establish and get the NDIA Aircraft Survivability Division operating in its initial years was very rewarding. He could challenge you in many ways, but he was always a gentleman. All the memories I have of working with him to make aircraft survivability a prominent and permanent discipline are etched in my mind forever.”

Dr. Robert Ball (Professor Emeritus of aircraft combat survivability [ACS] at NPS):

“When I was teaching the fundamentals of ACS at NPS in the 1980s and 1990s, I regularly asked Bob to give an ‘old-Navy-pilot’ talk to my class of young Navy pilots about his personal experience and his advice in all aspects of ACS, both operationally and professionally. After one of Bob’s talks, I overheard one student say to another (respectfully), ‘Once an admiral, always an admiral.’

Bob was always impressive in his enthusiastic, and voluntary, support of the ACS discipline; and he made a major contribution to the growth of ACS as a critical aircraft design discipline with his influence in the military aviation community and his foundational leadership of the CSD.”

Mr. Ken Goff (former Survivability Lead at the Naval Air Systems Command [NAVAIR]):

“When I took over the NAVAIR Survivability Division in 1997, Bob started calling me on a regular (monthly) basis. He kind of became one of my ‘unofficial’ mentors, which was incredible to me. At that time, I was a brand-new supervisor of a division that came together from a major BRAC . . . and Bob graciously offered me a lot of his time and advice.”

Mr. David Hall (former Chief Analyst for the Survivability Division of the Naval Air Warfare Center and chair of the JTCG/AS Methodology Subgroup):

“I met Bob in the mid-1980s when I was asked to come to a run-through of a briefing he was giving on survivability. I think he was a little annoyed that I critiqued a few of his slides. I didn’t know who he was at the time. If I had known he was a retired admiral, I might have been a little more politic; but he took my comments and made the changes I suggested.

Bob didn’t fit my usual impression of a flag officer—he was truly interested in making things better and didn’t care where the suggestions came from. The thing I remember most about Bob was his Survivability Bubble Chart. He’d show that chart pretty much everywhere he went, selling survivability to industry and government. In addition, he was the driving force behind the NDIA survivability division and made a lot of things happen there. He was also very helpful to me later on in trying to get survivability as a design feature in UAS.”

Mr. Dale Atkinson (former Head of Survivability at NAVAIR and Editor-in- Chief of the Aircraft Survivability journal):

“I met Bob in the 1980s, when he was part of a group doing a study for OSD or the Joint Staff, and his part was aircraft survivability. I talked to him for quite a while at that first meeting, but he still had many questions after our time ran out. I was reviewing a draft of Bob Ball’s survivability textbook at the time, so I had a copy (which was about 3 inches thick) printed out for Bob to take with him.

The next day, Bob showed up with more questions. I realized then that he was different because he asked good questions (and obviously had read most of the draft I had given him the previous day). He went on to help us in many ways over the years because he was a solid citizen and a true survivability advocate. . . In particular, he helped us convince the upper levels of the Navy and OSD of the importance of this area.”


In conclusion, on behalf of the entire aircraft survivability community, JASPO expresses its condolences to Bob’s wife, Linda, and the entire Gormley family. The legacy of leadership, service, and excellence that Bob brought to the industry for so many years will not be forgotten; nor will his unending dedication to the safety and success of the U.S. Warfighter.

[Editor’s Note: The author would like to thank Ms. Linda Gormley, Ms. Deborah Cannon, and Messrs. Dale Atkinson, Dave Legg, Bob Ball, Dave Hall, Jim Foulk, Kevin Crosthwaite, Ken Goff, and Ron Dexter for their contributions to this article.]


[1] Klotz, Robert. “Hell Hits the Independence.” The Hook: Journal of Carrier Aviation, winter 2005.

[2] Naval History and Heritage Command. “Casualties: US Navy and Marine Corps Personnel Killed and Injured in Selected Accidents and Other Incidents Not Directly the Result of Enemy Action.” https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/c/casualties-usnavy-marinecorps-personnel-killed-injured-selected-accidents-other-incidents-notdirectly-result-enemy-action.html#1960, accessed May 2021.

[3] Survivability/Vulnerability Information Analysis Center. “NDIA Combat Survivability Division Leadership to Change.” SURVIAC Bulletin, vol. XVI, issue 1, 2005.