U-2 "Dragon Lady"

A U-2 “Dragon Lady” assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing prepares to land at Beale Air Force Base on Dec. 15, 2020.

A local veteran who made history passed away at age 90 leaving the area with the legacy of a war hero.

Robert Powell, who flew for the U.S. Air Force, passed away on Aug. 27. He was 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. Powell was also a pilot for missions in Cuba, Vietnam and the Korean War. 

With three aerial awards for Distinguished Flying Crosses and 17 air medals, 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.”

Robert Powell enlisted in the Air Force 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.

Born in Plant City, Florida, he attended cadet school to complete pilot training and began his career as a turbojet fighter-bomber. From there, he never backed away from any challenges and was the first to put his foot forward on any assignment. 

In 1957 he was one of the first pilots to fly the U-2, a high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. In total, he logged around 2,000 flight hours with the aircraft. He arrived at Beale Air Force Base in 1966 and continued to fly the SR-71. The U-2 and the SR-71 were his favorite to fly, said his wife. He also flew the T-33 with 2,000 flight hours logged and the T-38 with an estimated 800 hours logged. 

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 Air Force Base 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.

She remembers him describing to a neighbor how it took him longer to drive from Beale to Yuba City than it did for him to fly from Texas to Beale Air Force Base. 

Marlene and Robert Powell were married for 65 years and decided to buy a house in Yuba City to raise their family. 

“This was the longest he was stationed at any place and the kids wanted to stay in this area,” said his wife. “I suggested we buy a house in Yuba City and now this is home. We loved the place and were grateful to raise the children here.”

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