SR-71 Blackbird

“The Blackbird” an interesting SPEED story

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.

Interesting history lesson for those of you so inclined
SR-71 Blackbird

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 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 week long 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 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 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 takeoff, 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

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

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. 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.

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.

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