Ask a Veteran
These Museum staffers and volunteers once served their country in the armed forces. Now they serve in a different way.
- By Rebecca Maksel
- AirSpaceMag.com, November 10, 2011
Dane A. Penland
Buz Carpenter flew the fastest jet ever invented, the SR-71 Blackbird. Even though he had already flown the Lockheed C-141 freighter, his first aircraft after graduating from the Air Force Academy in 1967, and the McDonnell RF-4C in combat, to fly the exotic spyplane took a year of training. “Well, you’re wearing a space suit,” says Carpenter, “and you’re flying at 85,000 feet, traveling at 2,100 miles an hour—Mach 3+—and you’re flying reconnaissance missions that were very sensitive to our nation’s government. But the airplane is just very different from other airplanes. You had to refuel every flight at least once, and sometimes three times.”
He recalls flying one mission in the SR-71 that is now in the Museum’s collection. “I flew a mission in that aircraft in 1979 for President Carter. I flew that airplane from Mildenhall Air Base near London all the way down into the Middle East and back. The mission was nine hours and 45 minutes long, and it took five refuelings. The French wouldn’t let us overfly, so we had to fly from England around Spain and Portugal through the Straits of Gibraltar all the way into the Middle East, and then back.”
Reconnaissance missions at 85,000 don’t give a pilot much opportunity to view the landscape, but as a recce pilot in Vietnam, Carpenter saw plenty. He flew 150 combat hours and spent more than 1,500 hours in the F-4. “It’s a wonderful airplane to fly,” he says. One of his most memorable flights was out of northern Thailand. He and his navigator were asked by the United Nations to film an area that turned out to be the ancient Cambodian city of Angkor Wat. “It’s 60 square miles,” he recalls, “and we flew it at 2,500 feet, and it was absolutely incredible to see the temples that were still kind of encased in the jungle.”
While he was in Vietnam, Carpenter met then-Colonel Jerry O’Malley, who flew the first operational mission of the SR-71 out of Okinawa, Japan. Carpenter applied to the SR-71 program, becoming one of three pilots selected that year for the rigorous one-year training.
After more than 60 missions with the SR-71, Carpenter became an F-4E squadron commander at Moody Air Force Base in southern Georgia. In 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, he was Wing Commander of the 377th Combat Support Wing based at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. He retired from the Air Force in 1995, as a colonel, after 28 years of service.
Carpenter has been volunteering twice a month at the Udvar-Hazy Center since 2003. He loves to speak with visitors about the SR-71. “You meet a lot of interesting people as a volunteer,” says Carpenter. “That’s half the fun of the job.”
Colonel Carpenter is photographed with the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, which is on display in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.