- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Rod Pursell has been doing the same work for 40 years. Thinking like a pilot. Thinking like a technician. Thinking like a family member who wants to see a loved one again.
He’s packed parachutes that open as designed when pilots eject from crashing planes, perfected seats that secure passengers during turbulence and developed a range of harnesses, helmets, releases and manuals.
Pursell works for the Human Systems division at the Naval Air Systems Command. He also manages the Aircrew Survival Systems Development and Prototype Lab. That work includes supporting the Navy around the world, the Coast Guard and a team that investigates accidents and equipment failures.
The “human system” is unlike any other in aviation, Pursell said. “There’s not any other system on the aircraft that wants to come home to mommy and daddy,” he said. His group might not receive the same degree of fanfare as F-18 pilots and Marine Corps snipers, Navy SEALs or Army Rangers. But those service men and women know their lives often depend on people like Pursell being good at what they do.
Pursell spent 28 years in the Marine Corps, active duty and reserves, taking on assignments similar to what he’s doing in the lab today. He knows what the fleet needs.
When asked what his ultimate career goal would be, Pursell said, “What I’ve been doing for the last 40 years.” He’s made decisions for what he calls “the silent majority,” people who don’t want to say anything “but probably should.” He’s played devil’s advocate, going through a laundry list of “what-ifs,” then posing them to higher ups, all to support troops on the ground.
He designs gear, sews it himself and assembles equipment “as if I was going to use it,” Pursell said. “Like my life would depend on it.”
These days, his team is supporting HMX-1, the Quantico, Va., Marine Corps squadron known for presidential helicopters and executive transport. He’s creating seat covers, “designed for comfort and show,” and safety, for world dignitaries.
Pursell is also refurbishing the walls and overhead space of the P-3, an aircraft that acts like a spy in the sky, hunting submarines, surveying battle space and feeding the information back to the fleet.
“Rod sets the standards,” said Doug Abbotts, a spokesman for the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division. He creates prototypes. He helps secure contracts for manufacturing, and he sends notes to the fleet, helping to simplify operation procedures for safety equipment.
Dan Ratcliff of NAVAIR’s Aircrew Systems program office said, “From aircraft seats to aircrew vests, Rod has been instrumental at taking our concepts and ideas on paper, and fabricating them into well-designed pieces of practical hardware.”
For reference, Pursell displays prototypes — flight suits, helmets, goggles, tool racks, life rafts and boxes that cover the massive chains used to tie aircraft to carriers — on the ceiling and along the walls. This 3-D archive comes from programs like H-60, the all-purpose helicopters used to hunt enemies and rescue friendlies, as well as the C-130 cargo aircraft.
Pursell has packed parachutes that allowed crew members to float, rather than plummet through the air after they ejected. He’s sewn gear that held oxygen tanks in place for pilots, swimming for their lives, after their aircraft crashed in the Philippine Sea, or the Gulf of Mexico, or the Atlantic. They’ve come to shake his hand. Some even brought him “a bottle of booze,” he said.
With lives at stake, with every stitch, metal hook, or bolt of fabric, days can be long and nights restless. But as years have passed, Pursell said, he’s gained experience and confidence. “I can walk out the door and turn it off,” Pursell said. “I can turn the computer back on if I want to. I have to understand that there are other parts of life.”
On spring weekends, Pursell takes his bicycle to Washington, D.C., to see the cherry blossoms. He’ll cycle past monuments. And he spends Tuesday evenings in the summer at the Iwo Jima Memorial, for the sunset parade.
Nowadays, Pursell is talking about retirement. He’s looking forward to heading back home, to Upper Bucks County, Pa., a hilly, green stretch of land north of Philadelphia. It’s the affluent community where he grew up anything but rich. His family was blue collar and he spent summers doing farm work until he joined the Marine Corps at 17, following in the footsteps of his ancestors — “a line of Yankees,” who served in the Civil War. There was his uncle, Francis Trouts, born in Germany and later serving in the 4th Artillery. Then there was the great-great-grandfather who served with the 78th Pennsylvania volunteers, and another relative “who won the Medal of Honor for getting shot in the [posterior],” Pursell said with his signature laugh that starts somewhere deep in his belly and ends up flooding a room.
Pursell said he’ll spend his retirement working with historical societies, maybe as soon as the end of the year. Meanwhile, he hopes the person who takes on his job will have the same commitment to the fleet. He doesn’t have patience for folks who just fill seats and mark time. They’ll have to be creative. They’ll need to be good with their hands. Mostly, Pursell said, “they have to know how much of a sacrifice they want to give of themselves.”