Alone and Unarmed

As unpiloted craft take over the reconnaissance mission, an intelligence insider looks back on the work that set recce pilots apart.

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When Alison was recruited in 1974, he was a reconnaissance pilot flying RF-4s, and he hadn't even heard of the SR-71.  "I got a call late one night from a friend of mine who'd sort of disappeared and he said, 'I'm in a pretty unique organization that I think you'd like an we're looking for a pilot.  Are you interested?'  I said sure, and he said, 'We'll get back to you.'"  What was the Air Force looking for in Alison?  "I had experience in fast, high-performance airplanes, mid-air refueling, and good decision-making," he says.

But Alison also had the right personality traits: good judgment, discretion, loyalty, and dedication.  "'How does this person fit into the group?'—that was almost as important as their skill at flying an airplane," says Alison.  "Because you're going to be spending a lot of time together."  Show-offs were not encouraged to apply.  "You're flying top-secret-type missions," says Alison.  "Can you do that without going to a bar and having too many drinks and bragging about it?  You're flying an aircraft that is the highest and fastest in the world, and you're flying it at the end of its performance envelope.  You're in a black world and a pressure-sensitive area.  One mistake could take you to the head of the president's shit list.  The gods are just waiting for that one moment for all hell to break loose."

Just readying for takeoff required prudence and patience.  In 1978, U.S. intelligence heard that a version of the MiG-23 capable of carrying nuclear weapons was being deployed in Cuba.  Alison was tagged to fly over Cuba to check out the situation.  Twenty-four hours before he needed to be over his target, he and his RSO reported for work at Beale Air Force Base.  They were briefed, went over the maps, and planned the mission in detail: the route, the fuel requirements, where and when they would refuel, what they would do if something went wrong with the refueling or if something went awry over the target.

The following evening, Alison kissed his son goodnight and reported to the program's physiological support division.  Flight surgeons gave him a brief physical and he wolfed down a meal of steak and eggs.  Two hours before takeoff, he slid into long johns and was put into his full pressure suit, which was tested for leaks.  Then he was installed in the cockpit.  "You can't do it yourself, so you just sit down with your hands on the canopy rails," he says; technicians connected his harnesses, oxygen, radio, and the urine collection device, a bag strapped to his leg with a tube running to the source.

Fifty minutes before takeoff, he started the engines and went through his flight checks, all while the jet remained in its hangar, raining fuel from tanks that didn't stop leaking until the airframe heated up at altitude.  With 15 minutes to go, he taxied out, and 10 minutes later he was ready to take off.  On schedule to the millisecond, Alison released the breaks, throttled up, lit the afterburners, rolled 4,000 feet down the runway, and lifted off at 240 mph, roaring skyward at a 40-degree pitch and climbing more than 10,000 feet per minute.

Twenty minutes later, at 25,000 feet, he rendezvoused with the first two tankers.  Sucking 55,000 pounds of fuel in 20 minutes from the tanker's boom in the world's fastest and highest airplane isn't easy.  "I'm working my butt off, and add a little weather, turbulence, the dark of night and you've got your hands full," says Alison.  As the Blackbird, a large and weighty airplane, gulps fuel, it gets heavier and sinks, while the tanker gets lighter and rises.  "The SR isn't made to fly at 25,000 feet, and you can get power-limited," says Alison.  "I'm at full throttle without afterburners, and if I need more power to stay on the boom I have to light afterburners on one side, which gives me a huge kick in thrust and twists the plane sideways.  I go from not enough power to too much, and I have to apply full right rudder and cross control the airplane."

Tanks full, Alison climbed to 78,000 feet and Mach 3 in 18 minutes, somewhere over Idaho.  "You can't feel the speed, but the sensation come from looking at the instruments," he says.  "You're covering 30 miles a minute, and a night like that you're in a cocoon of instrument lights and millions of stars."  An hour later he rendezvoused with a second set of tankers over Florida.  "That's always a great sight, knowing you'll get your gas," he says.  "We loved those tanker guys."  As dawn broke, Alison headed into the denied area over Cuba, a quick 30-minute flight across the island.  Toward the end of this track, Cuban radar locked on to his airplane but, says Alison, "that didn't worry us; there wasn't a hell of a lot they could do."  He refueled over the Gulf of Mexico and headed back, rolling into Beale at 7 a.m. California time, the photo sensor technicians attacking the plane "like a swarm of locusts."

When the photos came in, we could see that the MiGs were not the model that had the harness necessary to carry nuclear weapons; they were defensive interceptors, not offensive bombers.

Not every flight was as uneventful as that one.  During the Vietnam conflict, SR-71 missions were flown nearly every day over such targets as Hanoi and Haiphong.  The missions were critical.  Not only did they provide daily tactical information, they also located SA-2 SAM sites, which posed a constant threat to the U.S. tactical bombing missions.  The North Vietnamese knew the flight paths of these missions and were determined to shoot down a Blackbird.  But it simply flew too fast and too high.  More than 800 SA-2 missiles were fired at the SR-71, at first singly.  In the later stages of the war, the North Vietnamese launched a salvo of six SA-2 missiles from each site along an invading airplane's flight track, but they never brought a Blackbird down.  "I always had complete confidence in the plane," says Graham.  "Once flying along the Russian coast of Kamchatka, I could see MiGs ahead of me flying in circular orbit and trying to do pop-up maneuvers to get me, but they couldn't get close."

At its peak in the late 1960s, the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing maintained two squadrons with a total of some 50 SR-71 aviators (only 32 SR-71 aircraft were ever built).  And for a while, flying a Blackbird "was the most promotable job you've ever seen," says Halloran.  His first SR unit produced one four-star general, one three-star general, five major generals, and "three or four" brigadier generals.

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