For Summerfield’s Richard Petrucci, there was little question of what he wanted to do with his life, even as a young child.
“I was totally fascinated with everything military, especially airplanes,” said Petrucci, who eventually became a pilot and a U.S. Navy captain. “If it had wings and an engine, I wanted to fly it.”
Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1938, Petrucci was growing up at a time when millions of men and women enlisted or found other ways to serve the U.S. during World War II. For those not serving in the military, much effort went into building ships, airplanes and tanks.
His father, Paris Petrucci, built aircraft engines after he had tried, unsuccessfully, to enlist in the Navy. His mother, Louise Petrucci, helped build Sikorsky helicopters. His uncle, Ray Smith, served in the Navy and survived the torpedoing of the USS Yukon AF-9, south of Iceland, in 1943.
Petrucci said he always wanted to serve the country, but he first realized he wanted to join the Navy when he saw a poster of an American fighter plane, the Vought F4U Corsair, which was built in Bridgeport.
The poster depicted the plane making a final approach on an aircraft carrier, and also included Navy wings of gold.
Petrucci was honored Oct. 21 at the Congressional Veteran Commendation awards for Florida’s 16th Congressional District, hosted by U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan at the Manatee Performing Arts Center.
He received the award alongside Mill Creek’s David Daily, Bradenton’s John Skeen, Sarasota’s Richard Swier, Longboat Key’s John Brill, and Sun City Center’s Edward Mahoney.
The awards honored wartime sacrifices as well as peacetime community involvement.
Among Petrucci’s community initiatives are serving as a Blue and Gold Officer to report on applicants to the U.S. Naval Academy.
He is also involved with organizations, including Our Next Mission, which provides homes for disabled veterans.
Extensive Navy career
During his junior year of high school, when his family was living in Westport, Connecticut, Petrucci announced his intentions to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and become a pilot.
His parents, he said, were “extremely supportive” of the decision, with Paris Petrucci enrolling him in Admiral Farragut Academy, a Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps school in New Jersey.
However, Petrucci said he was saddened that his father did not live to see his graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1961, which was followed by him reporting to Pensacola to begin flight training.
Petrucci was prepared to take on all the challenges that came with the service.
“There were challenges for sure,” he said. “But I was fine with all that. That’s what I wanted to do. No problem.”
One difficult aspect of flight training was learning to land a Lockheed P-2 Neptune on an aircraft carrier at the Field Carrier Landing Practice sessions in Foley, Alabama.
Trainees aimed at a simulated flight deck that had been painted on the runway. Petrucci said he practiced the landings until it became second nature to him.
Landing on a carrier puts significant stress on a plane, he said, and requires a harness and seatbelts that are secure, as well as for pilots to make sure there are no loose objects in the cockpit.
“You’re doing 90 or 100 knots, and all of a sudden you come to a stop after a hard landing,” he said. “It throws you forward. That’s for sure.”
He said there is no opportunity for mistakes.
“It’s precision flying, and there’s no room for error, and you have to be totally focused,” he said.
What followed were attempts to make his first real landing, eventually aboard the Lockheed P-3 Orion that he flew for most of his career.
“The first couple of attempts you are a little bit nervous,” he said. “But then, with all that training, you get comfortable.”
He spent an extensive portion of his career searching for Soviet ballistic missile submarines off the coast of the United States.
“A submarine is the stealthiest vehicle ever invented,” he said. “It’s a very difficult problem when you’re searching for something you cannot see.”
He called underwater acoustics “amazing,” and said the changes to the way sound travels, based on the temperature of the water and the depth of the sound source, pose a challenge during the search.
He said these searches require an additional set of skills beyond simply piloting the aircraft.
“Flying the airplane and putting it where it needs to be is one thing, but what you do when you get there is another,” he said.
The search is on
He was deployed to the Naval Air Station in Key West during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, performing surveillance to verify the removal of Soviet troops from Cuba.
He also searched for a missing submarine, the U.S.S. Scorpion, in May of 1968.
The submarine had been returning from a deployment in the Mediterranean and was headed for Norfolk, Virginia, when the collapse of its hull was detected through the noise it produced, Petrucci said.
Although the submarine itself had already sunk to a depth of 10,000 feet, Petrucci hoped to find survivors on a raft, or perhaps the submarine’s emergency buoy.
Along with 11 other crew members on his aircraft, he searched for 16 hours.
“Everybody’s working hard, paying attention to everything floating in the water, every little detail that we can pick up, to try to put all the pieces of this puzzle together and say, ‘We have found the Scorpion,’ he said.
Petrucci said at one point, an object roughly the size of a submarine appeared on the radar, and he flew over to investigate.
However, what he found was a shipping container floating on the sea. The squadron reported it to the Coast Guard as a navigational hazard.
He said these containers can become dislodged from ships in times of rough seas.
Ultimately, the mission was unable to locate the submarine or any of the 99 crew members.
“It hurts knowing 99 of your shipmates died,” he said.
Petrucci said the character development he gained in the Navy created a lasting impact on his life and that all began with his time at the U.S. Naval Academy.
“I learned an awful lot,” he said. “Leadership, teamwork, coordination, personal relationships. And you learn a lot from other people that you work with. So, it just enriched my whole life.”