Major General Cecil W. Powell is one of the Air Force's most experienced test and fighter pilots. Born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1935, he starred in high school football, and won an appointment to the Naval Academy. Upon graduation from Annapolis, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force. Following pilot training, Powell moved to the 436th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS), George AFB, California, as an F-104 pilot. Soon after checking out in 1961, his squadron deployed to Germany for the Berlin Crisis and to Florida during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In 1964, he was reassigned to the 80th TFS in Japan. With the legendary Juvats, he logged 104 missions in the F-105 over North Vietnam and Laos. Flying an F-105F in 1965, his engine failed at low altitude, directly over Yokota AB. Unable to land, he ordered his back seater to bail out, then aimed his aircraft at the only open place in the urban area surrounding the base-a small plowed field-and ejected at the last second. In recognition of his effort to save lives, he became the first American soldier inducted into the Japanese "Zenkokai" (Good Deeds) Society. Returning home in 1967, Powell won selection to the USAF Test Pilot School and remained at Edwards AFB, where he worked on a variety of flight test programs. In 1971, he was assigned to NASA's lifting body program, making three flights in the X-24A and four in the M2-F3.
He helped expand the envelope for these forerunners of the Space Shuttle. Recognizing his accomplishments in lifting bodies and two F-4 test projects, the American Society of Aeronautics and Astronautics awarded Powell the 1973 Octave Chanute Award. After returning from a second combat tour in Vietnam, he controlled weapons and tactics evaluation programs as Commander of the 422nd Fighter Weapons Squadron. In the late 1970s, he ran the Stealth Fighter program and formed the original F-117 flying unit. In 1980, he took command of the 363rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, preparing it for conversion from RF-4s to F-16s. As Commander, 316th Air Division, Powell supervised the bed-down of F-16s at Ramstein AB, Germany.
He then returned to Systems Command at Eglin AFB, where he developed new conventional munitions successfully employed in DESERT STORM. His final assignment was as Commander of the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center, Kirtland AFB, New Mexico. There, he was responsible for operational tests on many systems, including F-15E and F-16 night attack avionics, the AC-1 3OU Gunship, Advanced Tactical Fighter prototypes, and the Peacekeeper missile. General Powell retired on 31 January 1990 with more than 4200 flying hours in 48 different aircraft types.
Major Cecil W. Powell accelerated away from an NB-52 on his third and final flight in the Martin Marietta X-24A lifting body. On this powered flight on 12 May 1971, Powell took the X-24A to 70,947 feet and Mach 1.389. He experienced a momentary delay after hitting the launch toggle switch; as a result, the chase planes got out of position and lost him in the clouds. Powell later made four flights in the Northrop M2-F3 lifting body, validating use of a lifting body to transition from hypersonic re-entry flight to landing. His work was a vital step in paving the way for today's Space Shuttle landings.