A0074

(author undisclosed) 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 turnover 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 andSA-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.

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.

 
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 off light,
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 Star fighter, 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 90percent 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-71missions.  I came to the program in 1983 with a
sterling record and are commendation 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 40minutes.
 
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 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, theSR-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.

Comments

  1. I had the great fortune of seeing one of these fine black-birds lift up and out of the fog one morning while I was diddy-bop’n from point A to point B. on “The Rock.” back in 1987. Wow! It was at that time I decided I didn’t mind paying taxes if that was what America was putting in the air. Thank you for your fine blog. -Carpe Diem!

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