Engineer Turned Jet Jockey

On a doctor's advice, an EE decided to become a fighter pilot

4 min read

When Robert ”Bobaloo” Rickard was growing up, he dreamed about designing circuits, not piloting a fighter jet.

”Ever since junior high, I wanted to get a degree in electrical engineering,” he says. ”But when I took my Air Force physical, the doctor said, ’Why do you want to do that as a career? Pilots are the focus.’ ”

The University of Missouri-Rolla ­electrical engineering student was on a scholarship from the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps at the time. Of the 26 ROTC ­students that year, only two got pilot slots. ”And the only reason I was one of them was because the doctor had talked me into it,” Rickard says.

Of course, an unsuspected knack for the job may also have played a part. After finishing pilot training, Rickard got assigned to fly F-16 fighter jets. He spent 13 years on active duty, logging more than 100 hours over Iraq in the mid-1990s, between the Gulf and Iraq wars. He twice earned the title Instructor of the Year, and in 1999, he was one of just 20 F-16 pilots sent for advanced training at the U.S. Air Force Weapons School—the Air Force ­version of the Navy’s Top Gun school, made famous by the movie of that name.

”It was by far the ­hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. ”It’s like getting a Ph.D. in fighter pilot. You become the instructor to the instructor pilots, and it sets you apart for jobs.”

In 2003, at 36, he left active duty and got ­consulting work at Vision Systems International, a San Jose, Calif., firm that employed Rich ”Scöbs” (pronounced ”Scobes”) Scobee, an old fighter-pilot pal, as business ­development manager. A year later, Rickard realized that he could pay his bills doing this kind of work, so he went out on his own with the Rickard Consulting Group, of Goodyear, Ariz. Now he has 10 employees.

Like most jet jockeys, Rickard has made an art of multitasking. Take his work life as an example. He spends half his time on his company, helping private industry develop and market a variety of products—such as a pilot’s helmet with computerized visor displays—and working out better ways for instructors to combine flight simulation with the real thing. Rickard expects the company to pull in nearly US $1 million in revenue this year.

Another quarter of his time goes to B&D Concepts of Scottsdale, Ariz., a two-year-old ­outfit founded with Don A. ”Dagger” Grantham Jr., an old fighter-pilot buddy. Bobaloo and Dagger, the eponymous B&D, brainstorm technical ideas, ­patent them, and find manufacturers to bring them to market. The advice of Rickard’s father-in-law, a patent engineer for Boeing, helped get B&D off the ground, and the two pilots have taken off with it.

”I’m more the techie engineering guy; he’s more the abstract, imagination genius kind of guy,” says Rickard. ”He asks, ’What if�?’ and the tech part of me kicks in with, ’This is how we can use it.’ We’ve been able to come up with some things that are unique and fit into the real world.” One of their recent ideas—the details of which remain under wraps—has recently sparked the interest of several space tourism companies.

Finally, he keeps his hand in flying, mostly at the Air National Guard/Air Force Reserve Test Center in Tucson, where he tests software and hardware slated for the coming year’s F-16 models. ”Our job is to come up with new tactics, techniques, and procedures. I actually lose money flying, because I pay myself more than the military. But I’m doing it as long as my body can take it, and it helps keep me plugged in and credi­ble as a consultant.”

So what’s the story behind the nicknames? Rickard explains that the older pilots confer them on newbies in a colorfully unprintable ceremony that’s ”usually tied to your name or related to something funny you did, or something you screwed up while flying,” Rickard says. ”And this is a job where you screw up every day, so I kept getting renamed throughout the year. I had to bribe my superiors—­usually it involved booze—to change my name.”

”When you learn how to fly F-16s, you get basic radar theory, but I understand the actual math and aerodynamics behind it.”
­—Robert Rickard, test pilot and consultant

In 1994, on assignment in Korea, he got the handle that finally stuck. He was playing drums in the base’s house band, Steal Wool, and his buddies decided that ”Rickard” sounded like ”Ricky” Ricardo, who played bongos in the 1950s U.S. television show ”I Love Lucy” and shouted ”Babaloo!” onstage. (Dagger’s handle grew out of his childhood nickname, D.A.G., based on his initials.)

”By my second tour there, in 1998, the band was still going on,” Rickard adds. ”As personnel arrived on base, our squad would try to get guys based on band talent. It’s still playing there, and a bunch of us re-formed and play gigs around Phoenix.”

Plenty of military men take engineering courses in college without a thought to practicing the ­profession. But Rickard’s attitude was different, and it shows. ”Interestingly enough, everything I do draws on my electrical engineering background,” he says. ”When you learn how to fly F-16s, you get basic radar theory. But I understand the actual math and aerodynamics behind it. In consulting, I’m trying to help other ­people make better products, so my degree gets me in the door and gives my ­opinions a little more weight.”

He also lauds his pilot training, which after all has occupied most of his adult life. ”You develop these unique skill sets that enable you to adapt to anything. If you have five fighter pilots working for you, you can run any company.”

Especially if one of them is also an EE.

About the Author

Susan Karlin reports on EE Robert ”Bobaloo” Rickard’s decision to become a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot [p. 26]. Nicknames like his were usually given to commemorate ”something funny you did, or something you screwed up,” Rickard says. Karlin tried to get an honorary pilot nickname herself but was told she had not done anything unprintable enough to merit one. She says she’ll keep trying.

Jeff Newton worked inside a jet simulator, which he says is one of the coolest locations he’s shot in: ”It was like being in an episode of ’24.’ ” His photos have been published in Condé Nast Portfolio, Forbes, and SLAM. Look for Newton in your local coffeehouse, especially if you’re in Phoenix or Los Angeles: he’s the crazy-haired guy on the laptop chain-drinking shots of espresso.

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