SR-71 Blackbird

Robert Powell, the first pilot to clock 1,000 hours in the SR-71 Blackbird, passed away

On Aug. 27, 2021 Robert Powell the first pilot to achieve 1,000 hours of flight in the SR-71 program in the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale AFB, passed away at age 90.

On Aug. 27, 2021 Robert Powell the first pilot to achieve 1,000 hours of flight in the SR-71 program in the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base (AFB), passed away at age 90.

Powell also flew missions above Cuba, Vietnam and Korea.

According to The Appeal Democrat, he was awarded with three Distinguished Flying Crosses and 17 air medals. Nevertheless Powell remained humbled and considered himself very blessed to have had the opportunity to serve his country and do some good, said Marlene Powell, his wife.

“He was proud to be a part of the history of missions in Cuba,” said Dan Powell, his son. “It was a big deal in American history.”

Powell enlisted in the US Air Force (USAF) in 1948 and flew over 55 missions in Cuba during the missile crisis. He had more than 5,520 hours of flight on various planes throughout his lifetime.

Left- Maj. Robert M. Powell- Pilot; Right- Capt. William J. Kendrick- RSO

Born in Plant City, Florida, he attended cadet school to complete pilot training and began his career as a fighter-bomber.

In 1957 Powell was one of the first pilots to fly the U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. He logged around 2,000 flight hours with the aircraft. In 1966 Powell arrived at Beale AFB where he started to fly the SR-71. According to his wife, the U-2 and the SR-71 were his favorite aircraft to fly. Powell also had 2,000 flight hours in the T-33 and 800 hours in the T-38.

On May 30, 1972 Bob Powell was at the centre of a scary episode. As told by Paul F Crickmore in his book Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions (Revised Edition), he and Gary Coleman were approaching Hanoi flying SR-71#978 in a front door entry when the aircraft’s Stability Augmentation System (SAS) failed with the risk of a double-engine flameout. They had just entered a 30° bank at Mach 3.2 and 81,000ft when the SR-71 started porpoising. As Powell struggled to master the destabilized flight characteristics, he found that he had to decelerate and descend to where the aircraft would be more manageable. Coleman radioed the tanker with a delayed rendezvous time because they would be approaching at subsonic speed. Powell completed a somewhat ragged aerial refuelling and trailed a spare tanker to the east coast of Vietnam, where they filled the tanks and slogged their way back to Kadena at 0.9 Mach (logging 6.5 flying hours).

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Besides being a respected veteran, he was also a family man who loved spending time with his seven grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Robert Powell had three children, including his son, Dan Powell, who always viewed him as a hero and recognized how his love for flying planes never died.

“He was my hero growing up,” said Dan Powell. “I looked up to him. I remember when I went on a field trip and he was there in his uniform and everyone was like ‘woah is that your dad’ and I said yes. We took field trips to the flight line to watch them suit up.”

Dan Powell still recalls how in the first flight suits his father looked like an astronaut. Not only did he look like one, but Robert Powell accomplished more flying time at over three times the speed of sound than any other non-astronaut in the world.

After his retirement he became a part of the Beale Aero Club and continued to fly. He would rent a plane from Beale AFB and take the plane for three to four days to either Parker, Arizona, or Eureka, usually to pick up his granddaughters for a visit, said his wife.

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Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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