More on the SR-71, Part 2

The second part of the guest post by Captain Dave Jones. Ed.

Part One was yesterday which I introduced as follows:

The SR-71, a truly great aircraft

John’s couple of articles about the SR-71 here and here reminded me of the time that I was given an article by my instructor at Mojave. He was a military test pilot and ended up with NASA and he was one of a select few to fly the Blackbird as a civilian….a great chap to talk to…  I continue with Part 2

     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

        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, 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. 

2 thoughts on “More on the SR-71, Part 2

  1. It is amazing the perils these men went into to provide real time intelligence to our civilian leaders so that they could make informed decisions to secure the many freedoms we take for granted as part of our everyday life. These are the quiet unsung heroes in the shadowy background. To think that he SR-71 was designed using a slide rule and is yet to be surpassed is amazing. My hat is off to Kelly Johnson and all the men & women who worked on designing & building it and also to all the men who flew it and men & women who maintained and supported it.


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