Former naval aviator to tell of Hampton Roads' long history with aircraft carriers
By TAMARA DIETRICH | (Newport News, Va.) Daily Press | Published: December 3, 2019
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Don’t tell anyone, but retired naval aviator and war veteran Robert “Boom” Powell is terrified of heights.
“Watch me on a tall ladder someday,” said Powell.
Acrophobia is actually pretty common among pilots, he said, despite the fact that pilots are most at home operating at great heights and great speeds.
“Part of it may have to do with the motion,” Powell said. “When you’re flying, you’re going forward and knowing you’re being sustained.”
And Powell, 77, is no lightweight. He was “shot up a little bit” over Vietnam, got knocked around for years by weather and turbulence and once sucked a bunch of birds down the No. 4 engine of a Boeing 747 on a takeoff from Trinidad.
Not least of all, he’s skilled in one of the most difficult precision maneuvers in military aviation: landing on an aircraft carrier.
He puts that challenge into perspective:
“Think about the fact that your runway is moving away from you,” Powell said. “You’ve got to have a very small and accurate area, unlike the Air Force guys with their 10,000-foot runways. Landing on a carrier today, you have to put the airplane down on speed, within just a couple of knots of speed. And it has to hit within five feet, left and right. And the total area is 120 feet. So you tell me who can do that.”
Well, Powell did that 486 times.
His passion for carrier-based aircraft and their gargantuan motherships inspired him to learn more about how they co-developed over the decades, particularly here in Hampton Roads.
“This was the area the first-ever shipboard takeoff was done — right there off Willoughby Spit in 1910,” Powell said.
These days, he said, “we are in the midst of aircraft carriers, both sides of the (James) River. The Norfolk Naval Base, of course, now has all the East Coast U.S. Navy carriers. And the other side is Newport News Shipbuilding. You can’t drive across the HRBT, looking to one side or the other, without seeing an aircraft carrier.”
And at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3, Powell is set to deliver a free public presentation on the topic at the Virginia Air & Space Center in downtown Hampton. His appearance is part of the monthly Sigma lecture series offered by NASA Langley Research Center.
Robert C. Scott, associate director for aerosciences at NASA Langley’s Research Directorate, met Powell a couple of years ago when Scott joined the Tidewater Soaring Society. It was Scott who recommended Powell as a Sigma lecturer.
“As I’ve gotten to know him, I’ve been fascinated by his many aviation anecdotes,” Scott said. “Some related to his flying career, which started in the 1960s, and included flying with John McCain on at least one occasion. And others related to his flying World War I aircraft at the Virginia Military Aviation Museum.”
Powell writes a regular column called The Hook, and has published articles in aviation magazines. He has penned several books, including “Wave Off! A History of LSOs and Shipboard Landings,” that forms the crux of his presentation. An LSO is a landing signal officer, a position only offered to the best of the best carrier pilots.
Born on Long Island, N.Y., where his father was a successful comic book artist, Powell joined the Navy ROTC program as a way to fund his college education at the University of Pennsylvania.
“And after four years of ROTC, I was brainwashed,” he joked.
He got his degree and his commission in 1964. “Vietnam was just barely heard of at the time,” he said. “All I wanted to do was fly airplanes.”
After finishing Navy training command, he got his first deployment flying the A-4 Skyhawk, and later the RA-5C Vigilante. It was the latter aircraft that earned him the nickname Boom after a particular incident over Thailand that he said he only talks about under special circumstances.
“It’s got nothing to do with my landing abilities or crashing airplanes,” Powell said wryly. “It strictly has to do with supersonic flight.”
He was stationed in Virginia Beach at Naval Air Station Oceana in Fighter Squadron 43 before a tour as an attache in South Africa. He returned to Hampton Roads to serve on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. After a 20-year military career, he became an airline pilot for Pan Am and Atlas Air.
He has lived in Virginia Beach for years, and raised two sons — one became an Army helicopter crewman who served in Desert Storm and the other became a professional skydiver. Today, Powell flies gliders and antique aircraft.
“I never thought about not flying,” he said. “It’s complete freedom. It’s exciting. Guys talk about driving cars fast and having fun — that’s nice, but it’s two-dimensional. Airplanes are three-dimensional.”
And nothing, but nothing, he said, beats a carrier landing at sea — especially at night.
“You get the clouds, it’s dark, you don’t see anything,” said Powell. “You get the feeling you’re not even moving — your speed is strictly the needle on the gauge. And you fly this precision approach. You do everything you’re supposed to. And, all of the sudden, passing maybe a 200-foot cloud base, wham! You look out in front of you and you see the little lights of the carrier deck and the lights of the ‘meatball’ and you just go, ‘I made it.’ ”
“There is nothing quite like it. It’s one of the greatest thrills around.”