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The SR-71 was a joy to fly, says Buz Carpenter. “You knew that the pictures you were taking and the electronic information you were collecting were vital to the president.” (Dane Penland)

Hey, I Flew That!

Some of the airplanes in the National Air and Space Museum stir personal memories.

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Buz Carpenter
Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

From This Story

It’s the fastest jet ever built, flying at a mind-numbing 2,100 mph, 16 miles above Earth. Its speed is so great, it takes the aircraft 170 miles to turn around. But in the Blackbird, says former pilot Buz Carpenter, the greatest sense of speed is during takeoff. “You’re pushed against the seat like in a drag racer,” he says, “lifting off at about 240 miles an hour.”

Carpenter first saw the SR-71 at an Air Force Academy graduation. “It was really an inspiration to us to see that the Air Force was getting an airplane that was this advanced,” he says.

He flew the SR-71 from 1975 to 1981, as both a pilot and an instructor. He flew the one in the Museum’s collection—number 972—to the Middle East at the request of President Jimmy Carter. “You knew that the pictures you were taking and the electronic information you were collecting were vital to the president of the United States,” Carpenter says.

His longest mission lasted 10 hours and 20 minutes, in which he flew from California to the north coast of Russia. During the trip he traveled more than 15,000 miles, and refueled the aircraft—which gulped 72,000 gallons of fuel during the mission—five times.

Refueling was so important to the mission that pilot applicants were selected in part based on their refueling experience. If a pilot had never refueled, Carpenter says, it was hard to teach him the skill in the fast SR-71.“The airplane was really pretty sporty.”

Joe Duff
Cosmos Phase II ultralight

Leading Whooping cranes across seven states is a slow proposition. Slower than 40 mph, in fact. And for flying that leisurely, you need an ultralight. For many years, the mainstay of Operation Migration was a Cosmos Phase II with three-wheel landing gear.

“Birds fly at about 38 miles an hour, and our aircraft will fly down to about 32 miles an hour before it stalls,” says Joe Duff, CEO of Operation Migration. “In a conventional airplane, all of your attention is focused on the stall, but in a trike it’s almost a non-event. You can focus on the birds.”

Whooping cranes are soaring birds, and in the wild they would normally travel 200 to 300 miles a day without expending much energy, riding thermals. But following an ultralight calls for a different kind of flying.

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