As a Lockheed civilian test pilot flying out of Edwards Air Force Base in California, Weaver and Jim Zwayer, a recon and navigation specialist, were testing navigation and reconnisance systems in the iconic 1960s spyplane. At Mach 3.2 over the New Mexico-Texas border, the right engine experienced an “inlet unstart,” instantaneously creating a catastrophic thrust imbalance. The airplane pitched up violently. Weaver forced the stick forward and hard left, then prepared for the worst. “I knew what was gonna happen,” he says. He tried to warn Zwayer on the intercom, but double-digit Gs strangled his voice and pulled the blood from his brain.
Consciousness returned in mid-air. “I couldn’t figure out how I had gotten out of the aircraft,” Weaver says. “I knew I hadn’t activated the ejection system.” Though he couldn’t see it through his ice-coated faceplate, the small drogue parachute attached to his pack deployed and stabilized his plunge through the high-altitude atmosphere. Meanwhile, he worried that the device that automatically pops the critical main chute at 15,000 feet required initiating the ejection sequence first—a detail he never got around to before blacking out.
“I had no idea how far I had fallen,” he recalls. As he thought about opening his iced-over faceplate, the main parachute deployed. Floating in the winter sky over a barren, high plateau, he was relieved to see Zwayer’s parachute bloom nearby. “Oh, that was a great feeling,” he says. “Because I realized we had both survived, somehow.”
Weaver soft-landed, scaring an enormous antelope from the brush and ending his first and only career parachute jump. Somehow in that remote location, a rancher spotted his descent and landed a two-seat Hughes helicopter nearby. While Weaver struggled with his pressure suit, the rancher choppered over to retrieve Jim Zwayer but returned with devastating news: Zwayer was dead. Weaver would later learn that Zwayer was killed instantly when the Blackbird disintegrated—his textbook parachute descent was entirely automated. Leaving his foreman to guard the body, the rancher provided Weaver a harrowing lift to a Tucumcari hospital, revving the little chopper past its airspeed limits as the meticulous test pilot eyed the instruments apprehensively.
The explanation for Weaver’s unassisted egress from the SR-71 became clear. The seatbelt and shoulder harness—nylon with a tensile strength of 5,000 pounds—dangled from his flightsuit, torn off where they attached to the ejection seat, which never left the aircraft. The supersonic blast during the breakup had literally ripped him out of the seat and clear of the cockpit, protected by his inflated pressure suit.
Bill Weaver spent 30 years at Lockheed, advancing to test the company’s L-1011 airliner. “I went from flying Mach 3 to Mach 0.9,” he laughs. Until recently, Weaver flew a modified L-1011 for Orbital Sciences, a private space venture, air-launching satellites on Pegasus rockets. He’s still involved with the company in an advisory role.
“Three times,” Rod Braswell tells me. “Three times to Ploesti.” The raids on the German oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, resulted in the heaviest American aircraft losses in World War II. Begun with a catastrophic low-altitude attack on August 1, 1943, 53 of the 177 B-24s dispatched did not return. At 22, Braswell was one of the younger B-24 pilots flying Ploesti missions.
“Ultimately, ground fire was the biggest threat,” he says. “At first, we had no protection. We went in all by ourselves and the German fighters took out a lot of us.” Eventually, they got fighter escorts, including members of the Tuskegee Squadron.
“You fly 50 missions and they let you come home,” Braswell says. “You fly 49 and get scared and can’t fly number 50, they don’t let you come home. We got hit a helluva lot. I went through three airplanes.” Mission number 50 turned out to be his most harrowing. “My nose gunner was killed. The anti-aircraft shell went through the seat of his chair and exploded in his body. My navigator lost an eye.