When Bob Gilliland made the first flight of the SR-71 on December 22, 1964, engineers were still tweaking 379 items on the aircraft. That didn’t deter Gilliland, who took the airplane to 50,000 feet and Mach 1.5. At a 2010 talk in Ridgecrest, California, Gilliland recounted that he ignored the one error message he saw in the cockpit that day: “Canopy Unsafe.”
We have the cold war, Kelly Johnson, and the CIA to thank for what is still the fastest aircraft propelled by jet engines. Once the U-2 proved vulnerable to the Soviet Union’s surface-to-air missiles, the CIA issued a contract for a spyplane that could evade SAMs. Johnson responded with the A-12, the aircraft that would evolve into the SR-71.
Fifty years later, the Blackbird continues to mesmerize pilots and public alike. During its career, the reconnaissance aircraft gathered intelligence all over the globe. Crews spied on military activities in North Vietnam, took imagery during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, flew over the Persian Gulf, and peered into the former Soviet Union.
We’ve collected just a few of the stories from Blackbird crews, but when we asked pilots to compare it to other aircraft they’d flown, we stumped them. One summed up the slim similarities: “It’s got controls and a throttle.” Visit airspacemag.com for additional stories, pictures, and trivia—and add your own. —The Editors
Some stories first appeared in Richard Graham’s SR-71 Blackbird: Stories, Tales, and Legends; and SR-71 Revealed: The Inside Story. Excerpts are used with permission.
Colonel James H. Shelton Jr.
Shelton was the first Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron commander of the SR-71 unit at Beale Air Force Base, California. He was the fifth SR-71 crew member to reach the 900-flying-hour plateau.
During the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, our government wanted to know the battlefield situation between the Israelis and Egyptians. They couldn’t move one of our spy satellites out of a Russian orbit due to higher-priority targeting. Lieutenant Colonel Gary Coleman (recon systems officer) and I were asked to obtain the information. We were to take off from Beale Air Force Base, fly through the Mediterranean Sea, down the Suez Canal, around the city of Cairo, Egypt, head through Israel, back through the Mediterranean, and recover at RAF Mildenhall, England. This would be about an 8-hour-and-45-minute flight.
The next day, we were informed that the British would not let the SR-71 land in England due to their dependence on Middle East oil. The new plan was to fly from Griffiss Air Force Base, New York, through the Middle East and return to Griffiss. It meant that the mission was now 11 hours and 30 minutes.
As we headed down the Suez Canal, Gary informed me that a SAM site in Egypt was tracking us. We maintained speed and heading. Fortunately, as we continued south over the Suez Canal, the SAM site stopped tracking our plane. Eventually, we turned west to circle around Cairo. Once again, an Egyptian SAM site started tracking us. Through the side window, I spotted high-altitude condensation trails approximately 40,000 feet below us. Now we had fighter aircraft trying to track us or attempting to shoot us down, as well as the threat from the SAM site. Based on our location, I believed they were Egyptian aircraft and not Israelis.
Our sixth air refueling was over Canada. Knowing the weather at Griffiss was clear and we wouldn’t need any extra fuel, I pushed the throttles up to full military power, just before the afterburner range. This increased our speed to around Mach .98. The Canadian air traffic controller kept asking us what type of aircraft we were. I responded, “As filed on our flight plan.” After landing, I questioned our mission planners as to the type of aircraft they had indicated on our flight plan. They replied, “A KC-135 tanker.” No wonder the traffic controller wanted to know the type of aircraft—a KC-135 flies almost 150 miles per hour slower than I was going.
Our photos showed that the Israelis had moved farther into Egypt than Golda Meir had admitted. The State Department used these photos to convince Meir to withdraw from Egyptian territory.
Major Jerry CrewCrew was a navigator on B-47s and B-52Gs when he became aware of the SR-71 program. After 308 hours in the back seat of the SR-71 and an unplanned medical retirement, Crew is now known as the World’s Fastest Farmer.