Captaining Uncertain Skies

Morten Brandtzæg was just 11 years old when he made an important decision in his life – to become an aviator. It not only shaped who he is today, but also his perception of responsibility, safety and how to work hard to reach your goals.

Thorstein Korsvold, 14 May, 2020

He went to France in 1974 together with his swim team. Morten was going to train and compete. But since he turned eleven right in the middle of the trip the team decided to give him a birthday gift. That gift would end up changing his life.

– I had no clue about their plans. But they told me to get dressed, we got in a car and started driving. After a while we ended up at a small airport, and there it was, a small plane. My teammates had pooled their funds and decided to give me a plane trip! It was just wonderful. And when we were airborne… I got that special feeling you really only get a few times in a life. Seeing the world from above – I felt that this was something I wanted to do. So I decided, right then and there, that I wanted to fly my own plane.

It would take a long time before that dream could be realized, but Morten did not give up. Two years later, he started as a paperboy and saved all the money he made. A tough job for a kid, but Morten pushed on.

– Of course it was tough. My family never had the money to pay for flight instructions, so I had to work towards this myself. Every morning, I got up early and started my route at 0430. It took two hours, six days a week, and I had to bicycle 25 kilometers. At least I got in shape! But after six years, I had saved enough money. I still remember the sum, 16.400 kroner, Morten says.

A bike trip to the local airport

One sunny day in 1980, Morten got on his trusty bike and cycled to the local airport, Kjevik in Kristiansand. He presented the money, asked the local pilot club to enroll him in their pilot classes and started on the next phase towards his dream.

Morten Brandtzæg photographed as he takes off in his experimental plane. Photo: Martin Alexander Skaatun.

– I told them I wanted to get my pilot’s license. I ended up doing all the exams at the same time as all of my upper secondary school exams. That was pretty intense, but I passed. Getting all of the flight classes took more time though. But one day in February 1984, I finished that too.

– That’s ten years – from when you decided as an 11-year old, until you finally got there?

– True. But I had decided and did not want to give up.

 We must be like top athletes

Today, Morten is no longer a young and promising pilot. He’s the CEO of Nammo, an aerospace and defensecompany specializing in advanced and niche products. Morten however believes his values are still the same: It’s all about setting goals – and reaching them.

– Nammo is no ordinary company. We are different from many others in that we specialize much more. Our products are advanced, they are niche, and we need to re-invest a lot of the money we make back into research. And we absolutely need to keep the company very profitable. Otherwise we will lose that option to focus on inventing, researching, and coming up with new concepts.

While Morten believes the economy of the company is important, he also feels it is just one of the elements needed for success.

– The economy is – at the end of the day – just the result of what happens on the technical side. And then there’s the company culture, the people and the knowledge in the organization.  We must nurture all of these and build towards our goal.

Nammo CEO Morten Brandtzæg, here at the “Presseverket” factory at Raufoss, Norway. Photo: Nammo

– What is the goal?

– Well, we must never forget the users. A lot of them are soldiers who put their lives on the line: For their countries, or in a NATO or UN context. It would be an understatement to say they do an important job. In a historical context, Western democracies have had to fight for their values and their freedom. I strongly believe we still need that ability. And it is our responsibility to give them the very best tools. Our weapons and ammunition have to give them an edge on the battlefield – more range, more precision and more effect on target – because their lives depend on it. That is our goal. I also believe it’s a duty, a moral obligation.

Morten believes Nammo employees have to think a bit like top athletes to get there.

– We must think and act like top athletes: Set goals and work towards them every day. We must improve, bit by bit. And if you think that sounds pretentious, or over the top – yes, maybe it does. I did feel a bit ridiculous myself ten years ago, when we vowed to get to the moon with a Nammo rocket motor. But last year, we achieved that. (SpaceIL’s Beresheet Lunar Lander carried a Nammo-made rocket motor). We will go there a second time as part of ESA’s HERACLES moon mission and I believe our Ramjet technology is an equally difficult task. Setting goals and getting there, that is immensely important. Without new goals, we will never develop new technology. I like doing the impossible, one step at a time.


Burning rocket

Successes are nice, but things don’t always go according to plan. Morten Brandtzæg certainly has seen setbacks as well. Some have come in a Nammo context, some have been personal experiences. In 2015, he got a very disturbing call from the Nammo Test Center where a new prototype design for a hybrid rocket motor was being tested. After years of development and successful testing, he suddenly had a small disaster on hand.

– I remember that call very well. One of the test supervisors told me they had had a huge explosion on-site. As it turned out, the rocket motor prototype for the so-called Nucleus project had exploded, more or less destroying our test building. My first question was if there were any casualties. But there weren’t. That was an enormous relief.

The rocket motor was a preliminary design with some potential challenges and a higher risk than usual. A new and different material was tested, it was part of the insulation inside the component chamber. But the rocket motor team got a so-called burn-through: The insulation failed and a part of the combustion chamber didn’t hold the hot gases anymore. Long story short, the rocket motor exploded and the whole test building went up in flames.


Nucleus: A Very Different way to launch into space

– Sometimes we have to accept risk, but even though this mishap set us back – we lost time and money – no-one was harmed. We followed the safety protocols, shutdown was initiated immediately, and the engineers and testing personnel were physically separated from the rocket motor. So I wouldn’t say it was just luck. We had taken a number of precautions, and they really helped save us from something worse. I also believe that we learned a lot from this incident. We rebuilt, improved the prototype and went on to make the Nucleus space rocket, one of the most successful designs in the history of our company.

Plane crash

And maybe one earlier experience helped Morten realize the importance of unharmed employees – as well as the determination to continue the work.

– Just after I got my pilot’s license, I bought a home-made plane, an experimental. I lent it to a friend just a few months later, and he crashed it! He was unharmed, luckily. But still, I ended up having to rebuild it completely, and did all the work myself. It took me 3000 hours in my garage. But I still have the plane, and fly it from time to time. I don’t like to give up, Morten says.

Nammo CEO Morten Brandtzæg, here visiting one of the production halls at Raufoss, Norway. Photo: Nammo

In one of his previous positions, Morten worked in Partnair, a Norwegian air taxi operator. He was one of the people responsible for handling a serious accident with several fatalities.

– I still think of the people killed there, from time to time. Aviation has some inherent risks. I believe that some of the mindset from that sector is relevant for the defense industry as well.

– What do you mean?

– To me, it’s all about two things. The first is risk management. I don’t see it as an abstract thing that maybe the company should handle. It isn’t! Risk is something very concrete that we all have to take responsibility for – on a personal level. We choose to follow safety procedures. We choose to wear protective clothing. We choose to stop and assess the situation if something seems off – and we never accept unneccessary risks. The company’s responsiblity is to assess, set up procedures, lead by example, and make the right choices regarding risk. But doing the right thing is a personal choice. The second thing is that – as a company – we have to accept that safety has a cost. Sometimes we might have to stop production or take a step back if our employees see a risk. And we will never react negatively towards such employees even if they turn out to be wrong – because in the end, if we lose money or damage machines or structures, that’s always much less important than peoples’ lives.

– The current situation where we all have to handle a pandemic as well – do you believe some of your experience with risk management, and not least seeing the possible consequences – has helped the company?

– I think we have handled the pandemic relatively well so far. We started early, did a thorough risk assessment, and decided we had to act. Our employees’ health and welfare is what matters most to us.  Additionally, as a company in the defense sector, we need to function and deliver in times of crisis – perhaps especially then. Both these considerations pushed us towards taking firm measures. I believe the main components of what we’ve done so far is simply to adhere to the authorities’ restrictions and guidelines. As well as continuing to deliver to our customers, on time. So far, it seems the pandemic has strengthened our organization rather than weakened it. In my opinion, this is all about understanding and evaluating risk, making a plan and sticking to it. We also need to be patient – we are in this for the long haul!


One of the most important goals for Morten (well, besides safety), is developing new technology and new concepts. He feels Nammo has succeeded in becoming a company that emphasizes advanced technology – and brings new concepts to market.

Production at Nammo’s rocket motor factory. Several technologically advanced products are made here. Photo: Nammo

Morten feels that is demanding for the company, but sees no other realistic options.

– From a purely economic point of view, I don’t think we have much choice. I don’t think we would compete very well if we made bulk ammunition, for example. And by making specialized, high-end products instead – some of which no one else has – we play to our strengths.

– And what are those strengths?

– One thing that makes me proud is that we have a lot of highly skilled people. That includes everyone from the lead engineers with PhD’s to the operators. And I feel that there is a lot of initiative, at every level. Our production very rarely stops because the lead engineer isn’t there – the teams working on-site most often show initiative, and just solve the problems then and there. Or they might come up with changes that improve the process, or even ideas for new products. We are an international company, but with Nordic roots, and I still believe that combination of skill and personal initiative is something we do well.

Morten takes a keen interest in what is going on at the company, and loves visiting the production facilities. Photo: Nammo

Over the years, several of Nammo’s products have come from ideas conceived within the company. Morten mentions the M72, 30mm ammunition and ramjet rocket motors as projects that have especially impressed him.

– We have made the world’s first shoulder-fired system without a backblast: The M72 packs a big punch and can go through nearly half a meter of steel. And yet, it can be fired from within a building. The 30mm “Swimmer” ammunition can be fired through water and is unique. And I hope in time our ramjet missiles and artillery ammunition can really change the battlefield. If we are successful, we could change the entire NATO air defense with missiles that go five times as far as today.

Sometimes, events involving shooting are arranged by Nammo. The company CEO sees that as an opportunity to test some of the company’s products. Photo: Nammo