Topmost Gun : Military: Rear Adm. William E. Newman is the latest naval aviator to assume command of Point Mugu's Pacific Missile Test Center, a 'plum job.'


On the wall of Rear Adm. William E. Newman's office is a picture of the Navy's Blue Angels streaking through the sky in a formation so tight that the jets appear to be connected at the wings.

"That's me flying the funny plane upside down," said Newman, pointing at the blur of blue jets that symbolize the best of the Navy's precision fliers. "You redefine the term concentration when you fly for the Blue Angels."

Approaching the zenith of his remarkable Navy career, Newman is the latest in a string of top naval aviators to assume command of the Pacific Missile Test Center at Point Mugu.

Since he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy 30 years ago, Newman has survived being shot down over Vietnam, attended test-pilot schools in England and the United States, led a light attack jet squadron aboard an aircraft carrier, been the captain of his own ship and served as team leader of the Blue Angels.

Now, as head of the Pacific Missile Test Center, he finds himself in the middle of directing a historic realignment of naval institutions that research, test and evaluate missiles and other weapons systems.

For years, Navy brass have jockeyed for the top job at Point Mugu because of its prestigious mission and the opportunity for its commander to join other pilots in testing weapons on high-performance jets.

On Oct. 1, the job will gain even more prestige as Newman's command grows to encompass the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake, Calif., the Naval Weapons Evaluation Facility in Albuquerque, N.M., and another test facility in White Sands, N.M. His budget will double to $1.5 billion and his staff will mushroom to 17,500, including contract employees.

"This is a real plum job and it will be even more so now that it will be bigger," Newman said in a recent interview.

The only disadvantage, he said, is that his newly enlarged duties have greatly diminished his flight time. "It's fun to fly, but my main job is keeping the continuity here and putting together a new administration."

Unlike others who bemoan base-closure and realignment directives from Washington, Newman is decidedly upbeat about the challenge, even if it means significant reductions in jobs.

"I truly believe that we can get the job done better and more efficiently than we ever have before," Newman said. He has named the transition managers and pushed them to get started months before the changeover officially takes place.

His friends and colleagues say his approach is another example of the nearly compulsive drive and determination that have propelled him through the ranks of the Navy. A year ago, his persistence carried him to the top rank of admiral.

"He's what in the Navy we call a hard-charger," said retired Capt. William A. Lebert, of Camarillo, a longtime friend. "He was always thinking about how he could make his team the best."

Newman said he knew at age 15 that he would be a pilot based on an aircraft carrier. At 17 1/2, he left home for the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, which he now says was a four-year detour between high school and naval flight training in Pensacola, Fla.

As a young pilot in 1965, Newman spent 8 1/2 months in Vietnam, flying 130 bombing sorties. It was the year of the war marked by the most American casualties.

On Friday the 13th of August, 1965, anti-aircraft fire blew off the nose of Newman's A-4 Skyhawk attack jet in the skies near Hanoi. Virtually nothing was left in front of him--no radio, no navigation or flight instruments. The debris from the explosion damaged his engine.

Determined to get out of North Vietnam, Newman struggled to keep his Skyhawk aloft until he could reach the Gulf of Tonkin. "Once I got over the ocean, I breathed a sigh of relief," he said.

With his jet losing speed and altitude, he ejected after passing two U.S. destroyers. Navy crews plucked him from the sea after 45 minutes.

After his Vietnam tour, Newman was extended the honor of attending test-pilot school with England's Royal Air Force. He also went to the Navy's test-pilot school and later spent several years amid the hotshot test pilots at the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, Md.

Then he returned to an aircraft carrier and quickly moved through the ranks to become commanding officer of an A-7E jet attack squadron.

In 1978, Newman was selected team leader of the Blue Angels. Over the next two years, he flew the lead jet in more than 200 air shows in the United States and Canada.

Newman said no air-show aerobatics compared to the difficulty of a night landing on an aircraft carrier. But flying with the Blue Angels requires focused concentration for long periods of time. At one show, one of his wingmen crashed and burned in front of an audience and television cameras.

"You can't make many errors, at least significant ones, when you are flying that close to the ground," Newman said. "When I left the Blue Angels, I was a very proficient aviator."

Newman, a man of self-deprecating humor, says his success came about only because he was in the right place at the right time.

But some of his former colleagues see it differently. They say Newman established his reputation as a young lieutenant pilot.

"Sheer competence," said retired Navy Capt. Charles R. Bowling of Alexandria, Va. "I was quite a bit senior to him, but I had heard of him. He stood out among his peers."

His distinction as a pilot and his light touch with people helped lift Newman to the rank of admiral. "He has warts like everybody," Bowling said. "But his marvelous sense of humor allowed him to get over some hurdles."

Newman's biggest setback came five years ago when he suffered a heart attack while he was captain of the U.S. supply ship White Plains. He was flown to a naval hospital and underwent triple by-pass surgery. The physicians wanted him to take it easy, but Newman had other ideas.

"He viewed the heart attack as another challenge," said Judith Newman, his wife of 23 years. Bill Newman, an avid swimmer, made up his mind to get back in shape.

"The doctors told him that he could not swim because he was not fit enough and he couldn't move him arms because they had cut his breastbone," Judith Newman said. "But Bill said, 'They didn't tell me I couldn't kick.' "

A short time later, her husband was back in the pool with a kick board, kicking laps until he was breathless, she said. Within six months, he competed in the U.S. Masters Swimming National Championships.

The Navy usually grounds pilots after heart attacks. But Newman managed to get a waiver because of his intense physical conditioning through swimming and cycling. He is allowed to fly, as long as he is in a twin-seat cockpit with another pilot.

Test pilots at Point Mugu said he hasn't lost his touch, although he hasn't had a flying job in a decade.

"He's a good stick," said Lt. Cmdr. Terry Callaghan, who has flown with Newman. "Good stick" is as good as praise gets among naval aviators.

Earlier this year, Newman took the front-seat controls of a twin-seat A-7 Corsair attack bomber in a test of a Tomahawk cruise missile fired from a ship about 100 miles off the coast.

His mission was to chase the cruise missile about 400 miles to its destination at the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake and make sure nothing went wrong.

The flight's distance required that Newman refuel in midair with the delicate maneuver of plugging a refueling arm from his A-7 into a small hole in the belly of a KC-130 tanker--a procedure normally left to pilots on top of their game.

"Afterward, he told me he was a little nervous because he hadn't done it in nine years," said Callaghan, who was Newman's back-seat pilot. "I told him that if I had known it had been nine years, I would have been nervous too. He did remarkably well."


The U.S. Navy Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Team is scheduled to arrive at Point Mugu's Pacific Missile Test Center on Thursday, July 4. They will perform for the public at the Point Mugu Air Show on Saturday, July 6 and Sunday, July 7. For more information, call the 24-hour recorded information hot line, 989-8786.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World