the initial design specifications that Kelly Johnson wrote on a legal
pad. Kelly is 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.
Interesting history lesson for those of you so inclined
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
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
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.
< /SPAN> 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 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. 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
Click the pictures to enlarge.