Fifty years of service cited at symposium
Once an aviator, always an aviator.
For 50 years, retired Col. Norb Patla has been part of the Army’s aviation community, first as a pilot of fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, then as a project manager assisting in the development of aircraft systems for the future and, lastly, as a key volunteer and industry representative dedicated to advancing Army aviation.
His aviation career, beginning as an officer with tours in Korea, and two back-to-back tours in Vietnam and continuing today in Huntsville with a Department of Defense contractor, was recognized Feb. 13 when Patla received the prestigious Gold Order of St. Michael award at the Joseph P. Cribbins Aviation Product Symposium, held in Huntsville by the Tennessee Valley Chapter of the Army Aviation Association of America.
“I was shocked because generally that award is reserved for general officers, SES’s or colonels who have served and provided significant contributions to Army aviation over the years,” the 74-year-old Patla said.
Indeed, Patla has served the Army aviation community for years. And he did retire from the Army as a colonel in 1986. Add to that the 30 years of involvement in assisting and planning the Cribbins symposium every year and his work with other military organizations in Huntsville, and Patla does seem deserving of the highest St. Michael award presented by the Army Aviation Association of America.
And yet, the award left Patla speechless.
“I was at a loss for words,” he said. “Who do I thank or highlight for this prestigious award?
“Army aviation has been good to me. It’s kept me going. It’s sustained me and Quad A means more to me now than ever before. One of the reasons I’ve stayed active in Quad A is to keep my fingers on the pulse of aviation in general and to hopefully nurture younger aviators and Department of the Army civilians to someday serve and actively contribute to the Tennessee Valley chapter.”
Patla was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1961 with the Army’s transportation corps, which included aviation at the time. In Korea, he flew fixed wing transport type aircraft for the Army Security Agency.
During his first tour in Vietnam as commander of the 18th aviation maintenance company supporting the 1st Cavalry Division, he flew fixed wing aircraft, including the O-1 Bird Dog, U-6 Beaver and U-1 Otter observation airplanes as well as numerous rotary wing aircraft.
During his second tour, Patla was the executive officer to the commander of an aviation support battalion. He flew UH-1 Huey, OH-58 Kiowa and OH-6 observation helicopters along with fixed wing aircraft.
“Before my second tour, the Army sent me to Fort Rucker (Ala.) to transition to CH-47 Chinook rotary wing aircraft,” Patla said.
For an Army aviator, Vietnam offered some interesting challenges. It was often difficult to predict changes in weather with the aircraft instrumentation of the time, and there was always the threat of enemy fire causing life-threatening damage to aircraft.
“We would look outside and if the cloud ceiling was high enough, and even if it wasn’t, we would fly,” Patla said.
“We were in a combat zone so we were always apt to get shot. During my first tour, the flying I did was usually to go out and recover aircraft that were down and recover them for repair or salvage as required. During my second tour, it was primarily providing long-haul transportation.”
Also, during that second tour, Patla was stationed in Quinon, Vietnam, the same village where his wife, an Army nurse, worked for the 67th Evacuation Hospital.
“She worked really hard and had to deal with conditions that were a lot worse than what I was exposed to. You just didn’t know where or who the enemy was. They could be farmers by day and fighters by night. Rockets came in at the compound all the time. I was really concerned about her. It was scary,” Patla said.
“When she finally went home, I was relieved to get her out of that environment.”
Though Vietnam and its veterans were shunned by society in those years, Patla said he was proud of his service in wartime.
“Like everyone else, though, I did wonder what our objectives were,” he said. “There’s always a time in every war when you wonder about the ultimate purpose. You ask ‘Am I here for a reason? Am I going to accomplish the mission?’ It is up to our leaders to lead us through that and show us what difference we can make.”
After Vietnam, Patla continued in several aviation assignments and developmental schools, and in the the 1980s, he saw Army aviation become its own branch.
“As the years went by, Army aviation grew as an entity. Because of its future growth potential it developed into its own branch,” he said.
His last assignment before retiring in 1986 was as the project manager for the Chinook-47 Modernization Program, which was part of the Program Executive Office for Aviation in St. Louis.
“Norb was instrumental as a project manager for the CH-47 Chinook,” said Dan O’Boyle, a public affairs specialist who worked with Patla at the time.
“His steady hand and valuable guidance has been valued to this day, as the Army’s workhorse lift helicopter continues to be at the forefront around the world.”
That assignment was the epitome of his military career.
“Being in command of a major system program really meant a lot to me. It was definitely a highlight,” Patla said. “The other highlight was being part of Quad A. I joined that group early on in my career, and it was a great source of camaraderie between current aviators and past aviators.”
After retirement, he worked for private industry in aircraft simulation. He came to Huntsville in 1997. He was recruited by Nichols Research, a systems engineering company that needed Patla’s aviation expertise to develop its aviation customer base. He later worked for CSC and now works for Mitre Corp. part time, where his Army aviation perspective is important in the development of new Army aviation applications.
When Army aviation moved to Redstone Arsenal in 1996, there was some doubt as to whether a AAAA Cribbins symposium would be successful in a community that, at the time, was more familiar with Army missiles than with aircraft. Soon after arriving in Huntsville, Patla became instrumental in keeping the Cribbins symposium moving forward.
“The president of Quad A in Huntsville, Mike Boyd (who had served as the chief of staff for the Missile Command at Redstone), said let’s keep this tradition going. So, in 1997, we had a small conference at the Huntsville Marriott,” Patla recalled.
“That first symposium carried us through and after that it grew back as popular as it was in St. Louis. Army aviation came to Huntsville and so did the Cribbins Aviation Product Symposium.”
There are about 10 members of the committee that coordinate the Cribbins symposium, with the local AAAA chapter president leading the effort. For several years, Patla and Bob Vlasics have worked on elements of the symposium’s agenda while longtime member Chris Henderson has worked the details of presenting the symposium at the Von Braun Center.
“This committee has come together year after year to make it happen,” Patla said. “Each president of the Tennessee Valley Chapter of Quad A charges the committee to plan the symposium and we run with the show, and it has grown and grown.”
This year’s Cribbins symposium was particularly challenging, Patla said, because the chapter president – Gary Nenninger – and the committee were aware that new travel regulations for military personnel would greatly impact the speakers and attendees. Yet, what that impact would be was not known until the last days prior to the symposium.
“The one thing we talked about at our first planning meeting was how to avoid the loss of our exhibitor base and speakers, and to prevent a potential cancellation of the symposium,” Patla said. “There was considerable concern right up to the last minute. We did end up with some impromptu sessions that turned out to be some of the best presentations we’ve ever had.”
Those impromptu sessions addressed sequestration (the act of across-the-board budget cuts by Congress that will especially impact defense programs if they occur in the next few weeks) and how various program managers will handle those possible cuts.
Although he is a dedicated aviator, Patla said his work has always been in support of the Soldier on the battlefield.
“Soldiers deserve better than what we are giving them these days with all the talk of sequestration and deep, deep defense cuts,” he said. “Soldiers have always been our objective. What can we do for our Soldiers who have been fighting the battles over there for the past 10 years? Aviation needs to push forward in support of Soldiers now and in the future. I am impressed with the contributions that Army aviation has made to the total Army over the entire spectrum of its existence and I want to see that legacy continue into the future.”