Skip to comments.A pilots story about the SR-71 the Black Bird
Posted on 03/07/2008 4:27:01 AM PST by MNJohnnie
A pilots story about the SR-71 the Black Bird
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 photos 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 Maj Walter Watson, the aircraft's reconnaissance systems officer (RSO). We had crossed into Libya and were approaching our final turn over the bleak desert landscape when Walter informed me that he was receiving missile launch signals. I quickly increased our speed, calculating the time it would take for the weapon--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," Walter 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.
I had applied to fly the world's fastest jet and was receiving my first walk-around of our nation's most prestigious aircraft. In my previous 13 years as an Air Force fighter pilot, I had never seen an aircraft with such presence. At 107 feet long, it appeared big, but far from ungainly.
Ironically, the plane was dripping, much like the misshapen model had assembled in my youth. Fuel was seeping through the joints, raining down on the hangar floor. At Mach 3, the plane would expand several inches because of the severe temperature, which could heat the leading edge of the wing to 1,100 degrees. To prevent cracking, expansion joints had been built into the plane. Sealant resembling rubber glue covered the seams, but when the plane was subsonic, fuel would leak through the joints.
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 Walter, 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 high Mach 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 40 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 twin 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 Walter's mike button in the rear seat. In his most innocent voice, Walter 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.
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.
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 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.
The SR-71 served six presidents, protecting America for a quarter of a century. Unbeknownst to most of the country, the plane flew over 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.
With the Libyan coast fast approaching now, Walt asks me for the third time, if I think the jet will get to the speed and altitude we want in time. I tell him yes. I know he is concerned. He is dealing with the data; that's what engineers do, and I am glad he is. But I have my hands on the stick and throttles and can feel the heart of a thoroughbred, running now with the power and perfection she was designed to possess. I also talk to her. Like the combat veteran she is, the jet senses the target area and seems to prepare herself.
For the first time in two days, the inlet door closes flush and all vibration is gone. We've become so used to the constant buzzing that the jet sounds quiet now in comparison. The Mach correspondingly increases slightly and the jet is flying in that confidently smooth and steady style we have so often seen at these speeds. We reach our target altitude and speed, with five miles to spare. Entering the target area, in response to the jet's new-found vitality, Walt says, "That's amazing" and with my left hand pushing two throttles farther forward, I think to myself that there is much they don't teach in engineering school.
Out my left window, Libya looks like one huge sandbox. A featureless brown terrain stretches all the way to the horizon. There is no sign of any activity. Then Walt tells me that he is getting lots of electronic signals, and they are not the friendly kind. The jet is performing perfectly now, flying better than she has in weeks. She seems to know where she is. She likes the high Mach, as we penetrate deeper into Libyan airspace. Leaving the footprint of our sonic boom across Benghazi , I sit motionless, with stilled hands on throttles and the pitch control, my eyes glued to the gauges.
Only the Mach indicator is moving, steadily increasing in hundredths, in a rhythmic consistency similar to the long distance runner who has caught his second wind and picked up the pace. The jet was made for this kind of performance and she wasn't about to let an errant inlet door make her miss the show. With the power of forty locomotives, we puncture the quiet African sky and continue farther south across a bleak landscape.
Walt continues to update me with numerous reactions he sees on the DEF panel. He is receiving missile tracking signals. With each mile we traverse, every two seconds, I become more uncomfortable driving deeper into this barren and hostile land. I am glad the DEF panel is not in the front seat. It would be a big distraction now, seeing the lights flashing. In contrast, my cockpit is "quiet" as the jet purrs and relishes her new-found strength, continuing to slowly accelerate.
The spikes are full aft now, tucked twenty-six inches deep into the nacelles. With all inlet doors tightly shut, at 3.24 Mach, the J-58s are more like ramjets now, gulping 100,000 cubic feet of air per second. We are a roaring express now, and as we roll through the enemy's backyard, I hope our speed continues to defeat the missile radars below. We are approaching a turn, and this is good. It will only make it more difficult for any launched missile to solve the solution for hitting our aircraft.
I push the speed up at Walt's request. The jet does not skip a beat, nothing fluctuates, and the cameras have a rock steady platform. Walt received missile launch signals. Before he can say anything else, my left hand instinctively moves the throttles yet farther forward. My eyes are glued to temperature gauges now, as I know the jet will willingly go to speeds that can harm her. The temps are relatively cool and from all the warm temps we've encountered thus far, this surprises me but then, it really doesn't surprise me. Mach 3.31 and Walt is quiet for the moment.
I move my gloved finder across the small silver wheel on the autopilot panel which controls the aircraft's pitch. With the deft feel known to Swiss watchmakers, surgeons, and "dinosaurs" (old- time pilots who not only fly an airplane but "feel it"), I rotate the pitch wheel somewhere between one-sixteenth and one-eighth inch location, a position which yields the 500-foot-per-minute climb I desire. The jet raises her nose one-sixth of a degree and knows, I'll push her higher as she goes faster. The Mach continues to rise, but during this segment of our route, I am in no mood to pull throttles back.
Walt's voice pierces the quiet of my cockpit with the news of more missile launch signals. The gravity of Walter's voice tells me that he believes the signals to be a more valid threat than the others. Within seconds he tells me to "push it up" and I firmly press both throttles against their stops. For the next few seconds, I will let the jet go as fast as she wants. A final turn is coming up and we both know that if we can hit that turn at this speed, we most likely will defeat any missiles. We are not there yet, though, and I'm wondering if Walt will call for a defensive turn off our course.
With no words spoken, I sense Walter is thinking in concert with me about maintaining our programmed course. To keep from worrying, I glance outside, wondering if I'll be able to visually pick up a missile aimed at us. Odd are the thoughts that wander through one's mind in times like these. I found myself recalling the words of former SR-71 pilots who were fired upon while flying missions over North Vietnam . They said the few errant missile detonations they were able to observe from the cockpit looked like implosions rather than explosions. This was due to the great speed at which the jet was hurling away from the exploding missile.
I see nothing outside except the endless expanse of a steel blue sky and the broad patch of tan earth far below. I have only had my eyes out of the cockpit for seconds, but it seems like many minutes since I have last checked the gauges inside. Returning my attention inward, I glance first at the miles counter telling me how many more to go, until we can start our turn. Then I note the Mach, and passing beyond 3.45 (2625mph), I realize that Walter and I have attained new personal records. The Mach continues to increase. The ride is incredibly smooth.
There seems to be a confirmed trust now, between me and the jet; she will not hesitate to deliver whatever speed we need, and I can count on no problems with the inlets. Walt and I are ultimately depending on the jet now - more so than normal - and she seems to know it. The cooler outside temperatures have awakened the spirit born into her years ago, when men dedicated to excellence took the time and care to build her well. With spikes and doors as tight as they can get, we are racing against the time it could take a missile to reach our altitude.
It is a race this jet will not let us lose. The Mach eases to 3.5 as we crest 80,000 feet. We are a bullet now - except faster. We hit the turn, and I feel some relief as our nose swings away from a country we have seen quite enough of. Screaming past Tripoli , our phenomenal speed continues to rise, and the screaming Sled pummels the enemy one more time, laying down a parting sonic boom. In seconds, we can see nothing but the expansive blue of the Mediterranean . I realize that I still have my left hand full-forward and we're continuing to rocket along in maximum afterburner.
The TDI now shows us Mach numbers, not only new to our experience but flat out scary. Walt says the DEF panel is now quiet, and I know it is time to reduce our incredible speed. I pull the throttles to the min 'burner range and the jet still doesn't want to slow down. Normally the Mach would be affected immediately, when making such a large throttle movement. But for just a few moments old 960 just sat out there at the high Mach, she seemed to love and like the proud Sled she was, only began to slow when we were well out of danger. I loved that jet.
I saw and SR-71 for the first time close up last summer at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH. My first impression was that it was considerably smaller than I thought it would be.....
Flying low at 2,125 mph? Whats maximum speed at altitude?
It was an incredible accomplishment for its time.
FYI..The plane was originally designated the RS-71. When LBJ mistakenly leaked the news of its existence, he misspoke and called it the SR-71. Immediately, that’s how it became referred to.
AWESOME read!!! ~Thanks!
I love that bit about calling ATC for a ground speed check. Can you imagine hearing that come over the headphones?
Need to get som Saran Wrap to protect my monitor...
...and the best part is that by the end of the story, you realize he still had another 600 knots in the sticks!!!
600 KNOTS MORE!!!
Thanks for the post and bringing back some childhood memories.
"For its time"? Which country has since then equaled it?
I think your initial calculation may be off:
A mile every 1.6 seconds = 37.5 miles per Minute
37.5 MPM * 60 minutes per Hour = 2250 MPH
2250 MPH / Mach 3.2 = 703.125 Mach 1 Speed that day***
*** I believe that Mach 1 speed can vary due to temperature, altitude, and barometric pressure, but it’s usually around 700 MPH.
Someone will be along to help us soon!
Was at the annual air show at Dayton in the 80’s when I was Air Force. Remember a fly by of an SR 71. The announcer said “ the SR 71 is taking off from Beale AFB ( CA) and will be overhead in about 45 MINUTES.” That is moving.....
That my friend is still classified information.
Good grief! Read the story!
They exceed Mach 3.5 (2650 mph) and 80,000 ft.
He writes about her as though they were married. The marriage of man and machine.
And what a machine. Kelly Johnson was a frick'n genius and artist.
Love that plane! So we now rely only on satellites that can be shot down?
LOL! I guess not. ;)
I'm looking forward to seeing an account like this from an Aurora pilot who flew at Mach 6 over Iran...some day.
There's been rumors for years of a replacement for the Blackbird. Aurora is a name that's been bandied about. Whether or not it is true or not, I can't say.
But you gotta figure it would be hard to replace the versatility of a jet you can task to go just about anywhere, any time, and not have to wait for orbits to bring a sat to where you need it.
Makes me PROUD to be an American!
Good grief, do the math.
I DID read the story and they gave their max speed as 1.6 miles / second. I even pulled the quote for my post. Who peed in your cornflakes this AM?
1.6 mi/sec x 60 sec/min x 60 min/hr = 5760 miles/hr. 5760 mph / 741.4549 mph/mach = 7.76851 mach. But then again, it is a complex nonlinear relationship. Hey, they report, I calculate, we decide. Too fast for the airframe? Probably. But I'll bet that if ask "so how fast were you going, about warp factor 1?" I'd get a "foxtrot yankee"
Brian Shul was born in Quantico, Virginia, in 1948. He graduated from East Carolina University in 1970 with a degree in History. That same year he joined the Air Force and attended pilot training at Reese AFB in Texas.
Brian served as a Foreign Air Advisor in the Viet Nam conflict, flying 212 close air support missions in conjunction with Air America. Near the end of all hostilities, his AT-28 aircraft was shot down near the Cambodian border. Unable to eject from the aircraft, Brian was forced to crash land into the jungle. Miraculously surviving, he was severely burned in the ensuing fireball. Crawling from the burning wreckage, he was finally found and rescued by a Special Forces team.
He was evacuated to a military hospital in Okinawa where he was expected to die. Barely surviving 2 months of intensive care, in 1974 he was flown to the Institute of Surgical Research at Ft Sam Houston, Texas. During the following year, he underwent 15 major operations. During this time he was told hed never fly again and just lucky to be alive. Months of physical therapy followed, enabling Brian to eventually pass a flight physical and return to active flying duty.
Two days after being released from the hospital, Brian was back flying Air Force fighter jet aircraft. He went on to fly the A-7D, and was then selected to be a part of the first operational A-10 squadron at Myrtle Beach, SC, where he was on the first A-10 air show demonstration team. After a tour as an A-10 Instructor Pilot in Arizona, he went on to instruct at the Air Forces Fighter Lead-In School as the Chief of Air-to-Ground Academics. As a final assignment in his career, Brian volunteered for and was selected to fly the super secret spy plane, the SR-71. This assignment required an astronaut type physical just to qualify, and Brian passed with no waivers.
Brians phenomenal comeback story from laying near dead in the jungle of Southeast Asia, to later flying the worlds fastest, highest flying jet, has been the subject of numerous magazine articles and an inspiration to many.
After 20 years and 5000 hours in fighter jets, Brian retired from the Air Force in 1990. He went on to pursue his writing and photographic interests. In addition to running his own photo studio in northern California, he has authored five books on flying, for which he did all the writing and photography.
His first two books are about flying the SR-71 Blackbird. Written in a very non-technical style, these books give the reader a first hand account of being in the cockpit of the worlds fastest jet throughout a variety of interesting missions. The books are filled with stunning photos from the authors personal collection and have become the most popular SR-71 books ever done. Brians third and fourth books are about Americas air demonstration teams, the Air Force Thunderbirds, and the Navy Blue Angels. Again filled with unique aerial images, these books take the reader into the dynamic formations of these world famous teams. Brian is now the only man in America to have flown with both the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels extensively as a guest in the making of his colorful books. His fifth book is a special remake of his original SR-71 book, entitled Sled Driver, issued in a very richly crafted Limited Edition of only 3500 copies to commemorate the Centennial of Flight in 2003.
Brians story is unique, and he has been asked to speak at numerous functions nationwide on his varied experiences. His entertaining slide show and dynamic message make for an unforgettable presentation. He has been the featured speaker for medical groups, aviation safety seminars, and air museum programs, and frequently has been a motivational keynote speaker for a variety of corporations across America. Most recently his patriotic talks concerning terrorist attacks against America have received national acclaim.
Brian was recently honored as an Outstanding Alumni from East Carolina University. He owns Gallery One, a photo studio in northern California, and divides his time between writing, photography, public speaking, and backpacking in the high Sierras.
Definitely the "Right Stuff"
You don’t multiply!!!!
3600 seconds divided by 1.6 miles = 2250 mph!!!!
Post #6 shows Da’ Math!
Nice story but this speed is 2250mph or mach 2.96
typo, should be Post #16
Now you’ve got me making boneheaded mistakes!
>3600 seconds divided by 1.6 miles = 2250 mph!!!!<
3600 seconds divided by 1.6 seconds = 2250
and at 1 mile every 1.6 seconds = 2250 mph!!!!
A blast from the past ping
Think of it this way. If I go 2250 miles per hour, how many miles do I go in one minute? 2250 / 60 = 37.5 miles. If I go 37.5 miles in one minute, how many miles do I go in one second? 37.5 / 60 = .625 Wrong answer - the proof for your method fails.
Now try it for 5760. 5760 / 60 = 96 miles per minute. 96 / 60 = 1.6 miles/second. QED.
Stay away from that 5th grader show.
We were on Okinawa from 1969-1972.
twice a week I drove down to the road closest to the flight line to watch
one of those beautiful planes take off or land. It always
made my heart swell with pride and my
stomach quivery to see it. I never tired of it. There is one on Lackland in
San Antonio and I think it is the Habu, one of the ones in
Okinawa. It has the coiled snake painted on its tail.
“..flying a mile every 1.6 seconds..”
NOT 1.6 miles per second!!!!!!
And no matter how you slice it, they were going wicked fast which was what I was trying to say in the first place. Have a nice day.
Some of us in the 456th AEMS were asked for TDY to the 9th SRW to work on the SR-71. OH Hell yes I said to the shop chief. My "work" consisted of doing a R&R of my black box while having several rifles pointed at me. Great fun.
I love the Blackbird.
In other words, the engines had three settings; acceleration, idle, and off. The engines will keep accelerating until they fail (explode) so no one really knows what the top speed is.
How cool is that. Man I love American ingenuity.
I guess that explains his rather cryptic reference to 'surpassing their previous MACH numbers and showing "scary" MACH numbers'.
He was already talking about M3.5; Wonder where, in his experience, "scary" came into play?
Man, I would love to have the re-release limited edition with his RSO's book "Untouchables", but dang, I can't afford the $500+ bills for it.
Like the author, I too graduated in 1966, from Oroville High School ( a small town roughly 25 miles north of Marysville/Beale AFB). I worked at a local supermarket bagging groceries and would often get home late, heat something up and watch a little TV at my parents home high on a hill with a pair of huge vista windows facing south. One evening just before I sat down I noticed a bright light in the sky out the window and for a year or so though I’d seen a UFO that lit up the sky and climbed so rapidly I thought surely we didn’t have aircraft that could do that. A year or so later as I sheepishly recounted my experience to a guy I met at Yuba College (just down the road from Beale) who was an Air Force brat with a father in the Air Force at Beale, he proceeded to tell me that I undoubtedly had seen the new SR-71 Blackbird. So once more I considered myself completely sain again. In the months that followed we frequently saw the Blackbird flying around the area and after JC at Yuba I decided that the Air Force was for me in 1968. And even in an era of anti-military, spit on baby killers I was, and still am proud to have served. Next to fathering and raising three fine children I consider my Air Force service the finest thing I ever did. I’ve often thought, in the last seven years, what I pity I’m too old to be of much use but I still feel I could help in some way if there was but a plan for guys like me. Oh well, I ‘m off on a tangent again. God Bless pilots like this, Kelly Johnson and the Skunk Works!
Wish I could tell you all something about how much trouble we had at reading out and exploiting the vast (understatement) amount of imagery (photos for you non-intel types) from the SR-71. But if I tried, I might get arrested. I don’t know if some of those cameras and sensors are still being used. Likely they have all gone digital and realtime. Those were the days to get rich by owning Kodak stock.
She was/is one sexy beast!!
They went to the end of the runway, got airborne, stood on their tails and went straight up disappearing in a minute. When they came in they made a seemingly slow silent circle around the base and landed without much sound until they were on the ground.These things were the stuff of SciFI big-time.
We called them all Habus. 6990 SS Kadena 1970.