By Susan Richardson
On 3 October 2013, Mr. Thomas Bowen passed away following an extended battle with respiratory illness. The high altitude reconnaissance community lost a true champion and mentor. Mr. Bowen entered the U.S. Air Force on 8 August 1949 as a life support technician. His first assignment was Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ. He supported B-29 bombers, including the Enola Gay that was assigned to his squadron. He was also assigned to Mountain Home AFB, ID and Plattsburg AFB, NY, supporting B-47s and B-57s. Mr. Bowen’s first overseas assignment was with the South Korean Air Force, supporting P-51s. In 1956, he attended Pressure Suit School at Maxwell AFB, AL and disappeared into the “Black World.” His high altitude physiological support included all the early CIA pilots. In 1960, he was waiting in Norway to recover the aircraft of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down over the Soviet Union.
In 1974, as a civil servant, Mr. Bowen returned to the U.S. Air Force’s high altitude U-2 reconnaissance program at Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ. In 1976, when high altitude military reconnaissance was consolidated under the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, he moved with the U-2 program to Beale AFB, CA. Mr. Bowen was a highly respected mentor, sharing his experience and knowledge with both life support and physiological training personnel. During his career, he personally trained hundreds of high altitude pilots, reconnaissance systems officers, and passengers. He recently trained high altitude jumper, Felix Baumgartner, who went on to break the high altitude free fall record [under Red Bull Stratos], jumping from a balloon 24 miles above the Earth in 2012. Mr. Bowen retired from his position as Technical Director of the 9th Physiological Support Squadron, Beale AFB, CA, in 2012, and was awarded the Outstanding Civilian Service award for demonstrated significant accomplishments, leadership, unusual competence, and significant impact upon the Air Force mission throughout his career.
In total, Mr. Bowen’s career spanned nearly six decades of service and includes 21 years active duty in the United States Air Force, 4 years with the Central Intelligence Agency in life sciences, and 36 years as Chief of Life Sciences and Technical Director for U-2/TR-1/ER-2/SR-71 high altitude intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (HAISR) programs. He provided technical guidance to Lockheed’s Skunk Works and the David Clark Company on aircraft life support systems, full pressure suit (FPS) development, and survival equipment. He has been primary consultant to all U-2 and SR-71 mishaps that involved life support systems. An innovator and forward thinker, he pushed to design mission-specific life support equipment including the seat kit configuration for harsh environments, the automatic deployment system, and the implementation of the zero-zero ejection seat capability for U-2/ER-2 aircraft.
Additionally, Mr. Bowen was instrumental in the development of FPS-specific training programs including high altitude chamber flights, egress training, water survival, and field escape and resistance programs tailored to the HAISR mission. He has ensured the advancement of life support systems for HAISR aircraft for the CIA, USAF, NASA, and international U-2 programs for the United Kingdom and China. In 2006, Tom was honored by the Aerospace Physiology Society with the Fred A. Hitchcock Award for Excellence in Aerospace Physiology.
Mr. Bowen was a true visionary and leader; his legacy of technical support to the DoD Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance programs will never be surpassed.