Posts Tagged ‘Habu’

SR-71 BLACKBIRD – from an SR-71 pilot perspective

February 28, 2012

Image 1

In April 1986, following an attack on American
soldiers in a Berlin disco,
President Reagan ordered the bombing of
Muammar Qaddafi’s terrorist camps in Libya …
My duty was to fly over Libya , and take photographs
recording the damage our F-111’s had inflicted.
Qaddafi had established a ‘line of death,’a territorial marking
across the Gulf of Sidra, swearing to shoot down
any intruder, that crossed the boundary.
On the morning of April 15, I rocketed past the line at 2,125 mph.
I was piloting the SR-71 spy plane,
the world’s fastest jet,
accompanied by a
Marine Major (Walt), the aircraft’s
reconnaissance systems officer (RSO).
We had crossed into Libya , and were
approaching our final turn over the bleak
desert landscape, when
Walt informed me, that he was
receiving missile launch signals.
I quickly increased our speed, calculating
the time it would take
for the weapons, most likely
SA-2 and SA-4 surface-to-air missiles,
capable of Mach 5 – to reach our altitude.
I estimated, that we could beat the
rocket-powered missiles
to the turn, and stayed our course, betting
our lives on the plane’s performance.

After several agonizingly long seconds,

we made the turn and blasted

toward the Mediterranean …

‘You might want to pull it back,’
Walt suggested.  It was then that I
noticed I still had the throttles full forward.
The plane was flying a mile every 1.6 seconds,
well above our Mach 3.2 limit.
It was the fastest we would ever fly. 
I pulled the throttles to idle, just
south of Sicily , but we still overran the refueling
tanker, awaiting us over Gibraltar …
Scores of significant aircraft have been produced,
in the 100 years of flight,
following the achievements
of the Wright brothers,
which we celebrate in December.
Aircraft such as the Boeing 707,
the F-86 Sabre Jet, and the P-51 Mustang,
are among the important machines,
that have flown our skies.
But the SR-71, also known as the Blackbird,
stands alone as a significant
contributor to Cold War victory, and as the
fastest plane ever, and only 93 Air Force pilots,
ever steered the ‘sled,’ as we called our aircraft.

The SR-71, was the brainchild of Kelly Johnson,

the famed Lockheed designer,

who created the P-38,

the F-104 Starfighter, and the U-2.

After the Soviets shot down Gary
Powers U-2 in 1960, Johnson began
to develop an aircraft, that would
fly three miles higher, and five times
faster, than the spy plane, and
still be capable of photographing
your license plate.
However, flying at 2,000 mph
would create intense heat on the
aircraft’s skin…Lockheed
engineers used a titanium alloy,
to construct more than
90 percent of the SR-71,
creating special tools, and
manufacturing procedures
to hand-build each of the 40
planes.  Special
heat-resistant fuel, oil, and hydraulic
fluids, that would function at 85,000 feet,
and higher, also had to be developed.

In 1962, the first Blackbird successfully flew, and in 1966,

the same year I graduated from high school,

the Air Force began flying operational SR-71 missions.
I came to the program in 1983, with a sterling
record and a recommendation
from my commander,
completing the weeklong interview,
and meeting
Walt, my partner for the next four years. 
He would ride four feet behind me,
working all the cameras, radios, and
electronic jamming equipment.
I joked, that if we were ever captured,
he was the spy, and I was just the driver.
He told me to keep the pointy end forward. 
We trained for a year, flying out of Beale AFB in
California , Kadena Airbase in Okinawa,
and RAF Mildenhall in England …
On a typical training mission, we would
take off near  Sacramento ,
refuel over Nevada , accelerate into
Montana, obtain a high Mach speed over
Colorado , turn right over New Mexico,
speed across the Los Angeles Basin,
run up the West Coast, turn right at
Seattle, then return to Beale.
Total flight time:-
Two Hours and Forty Minutes.
One day, high above Arizona ,
we were monitoring the radio traffic,
of all the mortal airplanes below us.
First, a Cessna pilot asked the air traffic
controllers to check his ground speed.
‘Ninety knots,’ ATC replied.
A Bonanza soon made the same request. 
‘One-twenty on the ground,’ was the reply.
To our surprise, a navy F-18 came
over the radio, with a ground speed check.
I knew exactly what he was doing.
Of course, he had a ground speed indicator
in his cockpit, but he wanted
to let all the bug-smashers
in the valley, know what real speed was,
‘Dusty 52, we show you at 620
on the ground,’ ATC responded.
The situation was too ripe.
I heard the click of Walt’s mike
button in the rear seat.
In his most innocent voice,
Walt startled the controller by asking
for a ground speed check from 81,000 feet,
clearly above controlled airspace.
In a cool, professional voice, the
controller replied, ‘Aspen 20,
I show you at 1,982 knots on the ground.’
We did not hear another transmission
on that frequency,
all the way to the coast.

The Blackbird always showed us something new,

each aircraft possessing its own unique personality.

In time, we realized we were flying a national treasure.
When we taxied out of our revetments for
take-off, people took notice.
Traffic congregated near the airfield fences,
because everyone wanted to see, and
hear the mighty SR-71.
You could not be a part of this program,
and not come to love the airplane.
Slowly, she revealed her secrets to us,
as we earned her trust.
One moonless night, while flying a
routine training mission
over the Pacific, I wondered what
the sky would look like from 84,000 feet,
if the cockpit lighting were dark.
While heading home on a straight course,
I slowly turned down all of the lighting,
reducing the glare and revealing the night sky.
Within seconds, I turned the lights back up,
fearful that the jet would know,
and somehow punish me.
But my desire to see the sky,
overruled my caution, I dimmed
the lighting again.
To my amazement, I saw a bright
light outside my window.
As my eyes adjusted to the view,
I realized that the
brilliance was the broad expanse
of the Milky Way,
now a gleaming stripe across
the sky.
Where dark spaces in the sky,
had usually existed,
there were now dense clusters,
of sparkling stars.
Shooting Stars, flashed across the
canvas every few seconds.
It was like a fireworks display
with no sound.
I knew I had to get my eyes back
on the instruments,
and reluctantly, I brought my
attention back inside.
To my surprise, with the cockpit
lighting still off,
I could see every gauge,
lit by starlight.
In the plane’s mirrors, I could
see the eerie shine of
my gold spacesuit, incandescently
illuminated, in a celestial glow.
I stole one last glance out the window.
Despite our speed, we seemed still
before the heavens,
humbled in the radiance of
a much greater power.
For those few moments, I felt a
part of something far more significant,
than anything we were doing in the plane.
The sharp sound of Walt’s voice on the radio,
brought me back to the tasks
at hand, as I prepared for our descent.
San Diego Aerospace Museum

The SR-71 was an expensive aircraft to operate.
The most significant cost was tanker support, and
in 1990, confronted with budget cutbacks, the Air
Force retired the SR-71.
The SR-71 served six presidents, protecting
America for a quarter of a century.
Un-be-known to most of the country,
the plane flewover North Vietnam,
Red China, North Korea, the
Middle East, South Africa,
Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, Libya,
and the Falkland Islands ……
On a weekly basis, the SR-71,
kept watch over every
Soviet Nuclear Submarine, and Mobile
Missile Site, and all
of their troop movements.
It was a key factor in winning the
Cold War.  I am proud to say,
I flew about 500 hours in this aircraft.
I knew her well.
She gave way to no plane, proudly
dragging her Sonic Boom through
enemy backyards, with great impunity.
She defeated every missile, outran
every MiG, and always
brought us home.
In the first 100 years of manned flight,
no aircraft was more remarkable.
The Blackbird had outrun nearly 4,000 missiles,
not once taking a scratch from enemy fire.
On her final flight, the Blackbird, destined for
the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum ,
sped from Los Angeles to
Washington in 64 Minutes,
averaging 2,145 mph, and
setting four speed records.