Ask a Veteran
These Museum staffers and volunteers once served their country in the armed forces. Now they serve in a different way.
- By Rebecca Maksel
- AirSpaceMag.com, November 10, 2011
Dane A. Penland
Of all the assignments Bob Thompson had during his 27 years in the Navy (both reserve and active duty), his favorite tour was onboard a submarine tender in the Indian Ocean.
“Submarine tenders are the poor boys of the Navy,” says Thompson, who retired as a Commander in 2002. “It’s just a repair ship.” He spent part of 1980 in the Indian Ocean, where his ship provided repair services primarily to submarines, but also to surface ships.
He saw two interesting things during that deployment, he says: a destroyer acting as a tugboat for a frigate; and an SR-71 Blackbird in flight. “We were out on the weather deck of the ship,” he recalls, “when we watched an SR-71 circling overhead, flying as slow as he could go. Then he gave a wing-waggle, lit the afterburners, and he was gone in a heartbeat.”
As a radiation health officer, Thompson spent the rest of his career working radiation safety issues for various weapons stations, shipyards, ships of the fleet, and naval medical facilities. He spent time aboard destroyers, cruisers, and battleships performing radiation safety audits and inspections of medical equipment. But his favorite vessel was the aircraft carrier, where he could watch the F-14 Tomcat.
Once safety inspections had ended for the day, Thompson would head up to Vulture’s Row, on the carrier’s island, to watch nighttime operations. “It’s like ballet,” he says. “Everybody’s got colored flashlights to direct traffic, and you’ve got that Tomcat sitting there, and when they fire up the afterburners and take that cat shot, you’re cheering and screaming and also crying like a baby because you’ve got jet fumes in your eyes because you forgot your goggles.”
Shortly after retiring in 2002, Thompson learned that the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center was looking for volunteers. He’s been volunteering there since December 2003 when the Museum opened. He works in Visitor Services, which includes staffing the information desk, walking the vast hangar floors answering visitor’s questions, and running the elevator to the Donald D. Engen Tower, where visitors can watch airplanes land and take off at Dulles International Airport.
While he likes all visitors, “I steer right for the military guys,” Thompson says. “I look at the haircut and ask ‘Are you still serving?’ Nine times out of ten, they reply, ‘Yes, sir.’ I’ve met a nice bunch of folks that way.”
Bob Thompson is pictured with the Museum’s Grumman F-14D(R) Tomcat, which is on display in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.