And to show that the aircraft was infinitely flexible, there was a version that could go to orbit, at least in the imagination of a whimsical engineer at the Skunk Works. Included in the Caltech Ael07 course book was an image of an SR-71 bolted to a shuttle external tank containing JP-7 and two solid rocket boosters. No air-breather can reach space, of course, but it certainly captured the spirit of the enterprise.
Going Mach 3 wasn’t Johnson’s only problem. Another was his customer, the Air Force itself. General Curtis E. LeMay, the stogie-chomping head of the Strategic Air Command, didn’t like specialty items like the U-2, A-12, and SR-71. It was he who coined the term “boutique” for units that flew Lockheed’s handmade spyplanes. LeMay believed in collecting intelligence, but he didn’t want reconnaissance to come out of his budget, and he worried that such elite units would distract his workaday bomber crews. To LeMay, boutique aircraft were pricey, finicky, hard-to-maintain, limited-edition peacocks flown by “prima donnas” (as he put it). What he wanted, first and foremost, was the Air Force’s bread and butter: bombers and ballistic missiles that could go to war, not “odd-balls” (as he also put it).
LeMay spoke for himself. But while the Air Force readily bought and used SR-71s, his words haunted the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base in California, which operated them. Blackbird crews tended to feel like they were in an orphanage. Colonel Richard H. Graham, an SR-71 pilot, wrote, “The SR-71 never had a legitimate place in SAC—our entire program was always considered their step-child.” Justin Murphy, the Skunk Works SR-71 most recent program manager, couldn’t agree more. “Sure, we were a wonderful thing to have for airshows,” the former SR-71 pilot says. “We didn’t fly with nukes, we weren’t a bomber, we were kind of just out there.”