The Thrill of Flying the SR-71 Blackbird

by Brian Shul

Original Post from

I can tell you about the SR-71 Blackbird’s titanium frame, its Pratt & Whitney J58-P4 engines, or its genesis. But that’s not important. What really matters is the thrill of flying it in an extremely dangerous mission, as remembered by this pilot.-JD

In April 1986, following an attack on American soldiers in a Berlin disco, President Reagan ordered the bombing of Muammar Qaddafi’s terrorist camps in Libya. My duty was to fly over Libya and take photos recording the damage our F-111’s had inflicted. Qaddafi had established a ‘line of death,’ a territorial marking across the Gulf of Sidra , swearing to shoot down any intruder that crossed the boundary. On the morning of April 15, I rocketed past the line at 2,125 mph.

I was piloting the SR-71 spy plane, the world’s fastest jet, accompanied by Maj Walter Watson, the aircraft’s reconnaissance systems officer (RSO). We had crossed into Libya and were approaching our final turn over the bleak desert landscape when Walter informed me that he was receiving missile launch signals. I quickly increased our speed, calculating the time it would take for the weapons-most likely SA-2 and SA-4 surface-to-air missiles capable of Mach 5 – to reach our altitude. I estimated that we could beat the rocket-powered missiles to the turn and stayed our course, betting our lives on the plane’s performance.

181rufrmpb55pjpgAfter several agonizingly long seconds, we made the turn and blasted toward the Mediterranean ‘You might want to pull it back,’ Walter suggested. It was then that I noticed I still had the throttles full forward. The plane was flying a mile every 1.6 seconds, well above our Mach 3.2 limit. It was the fastest we would ever fly. I pulled the throttles to idle just south of Sicily , but we still overran the refueling tanker awaiting us over Gibraltar.

Scores of significant aircraft have been produced in the 100 years of flight, following the achievements of the Wright brothers, which we celebrate in December. Aircraft such as the Boeing 707, the F-86 Sabre Jet, and the P-51 Mustang are among the important machines that have flown our skies. But the SR-71, also known as the Blackbird, stands alone as a significant contributor to Cold War victory and as the fastest plane ever-and only 93 Air Force pilots ever steered the ‘sled,’ as we called our aircraft.

As inconceivable as it may sound, I once discarded the plane. Literally. My first encounter with the SR-71 came when I was 10 years old in the form of molded black plastic in a Revell kit. Cementing together the long fuselage parts proved tricky, and my finished product looked less than menacing. Glue, oozing from the seams, discolored the black plastic. It seemed ungainly alongside the fighter planes in my collection, and I threw it away.

Twenty-nine years later, I stood awe-struck in a Beale Air Force Base hangar, staring at the very real SR-71 before me. I had applied to fly the world’s fastest jet and was receiving my first walk-around of our nation’s most prestigious aircraft. In my previous 13 years as an Air Force fighter pilot, I had never seen an aircraft with such presence. At 107 feet long, it appeared big, but far from ungainly.

Ironically, the plane was dripping, much like the misshapen model had assembled in my youth. Fuel was seeping through the joints, raining down on the hangar floor. At Mach 3, the plane would expand several inches because of the severe temperature, which could heat the leading edge of the wing to 1,100 degrees. To prevent cracking, expansion joints had been built into the plane. Sealant resembling rubber glue covered the seams, but when the plane was subsonic, fuel would leak through the joints.

The SR-71 was the brainchild of Kelly Johnson, the famed Lockheed designer who created the P-38, the F-104 Starfighter, and the U-2. After the Soviets shot down Gary Powers’ U-2 in 1960, Johnson began to develop an aircraft that would fly three miles higher and five times faster than the spy plane-and still be capable of photographing your license plate. However, flying at 2,000 mph would create intense heat on the aircraft’s skin. Lockheed engineers used a titanium alloy to construct more than 90 percent of the SR-71, creating special tools and manufacturing procedures to hand-build each of the 40 planes. Special heat-resistant fuel, oil, and hydraulic fluids that would function at 85,000 feet and higher also had to be developed.


In 1962, the first Blackbird successfully flew, and in 1966, the same year I graduated from high school, the Air Force began flying operational SR-71 missions. I came to the program in 1983 with a sterling record and a recommendation from my commander, completing the weeklong interview and meeting Walter, my partner for the next four years He would ride four feet behind me, working all the cameras, radios, and electronic jamming equipment. I joked that if we were ever captured, he was the spy and I was just the driver. He told me to keep the pointy end forward.

We trained for a year, flying out of Beale AFB in California , Kadena Airbase in Okinawa, and RAF Mildenhall in England . On a typical training mission, we would take off near Sacramento, refuel over Nevada, accelerate into Montana, obtain high Mach over Colorado, turn right over New Mexico, speed across the Los Angeles Basin, run up the West Coast, turn right at Seattle, then return to Beale. Total flight time: two hours and 40 minutes.

181rufvkupg8njpgOne day, high above Arizona , we were monitoring the radio traffic of all the mortal airplanes below us. First, a Cessna pilot asked the air traffic controllers to check his ground speed. ‘Ninety knots,’ ATC replied. A twin Bonanza soon made the same request. ‘One-twenty on the ground,’ was the reply. To our surprise, a navy F-18 came over the radio with a ground speed check. I knew exactly what he was doing. Of course, he had a ground speed indicator in his cockpit, but he wanted to let all the bug-smashers in the valley know what real speed was ‘Dusty 52, we show you at 620 on the ground,’ ATC responded. The situation was too ripe. I heard the click of Walter’s mike button in the rear seat. In his most innocent voice, Walter startled the controller by asking for a ground speed check from 81,000 feet, clearly above controlled airspace. In a cool, professional voice, the controller replied, ‘ Aspen 20, I show you at 1,982 knots on the ground.’ We did not hear another transmis sion on that frequency all the way to the coast.

Permanent Awe
The Blackbird always showed us something new, each aircraft possessing its own unique personality. In time, we realized we were flying a national treasure. When we taxied out of our revetments for takeoff, people took notice. Traffic congregated near the airfield fences, because everyone wanted to see and hear the mighty SR-71 You could not be a part of this program and not come to love the airplane. Slowly, she revealed her secrets to us as we earned her trust.

One moonless night, while flying a routine training mission over the Pacific, I wondered what the sky would look like from 84,000 feet if the cockpit lighting were dark. While heading home on a straight course, I slowly turned down all of the lighting, reducing the glare and revealing the night sky. Within seconds, I turned the lights back up, fearful that the jet would know and somehow punish me. But my desire to see the sky overruled my caution, I dimmed the lighting again. To my amazement, I saw a bright light outside my window. As my eyes adjusted to the view, I realized that the brilliance was the broad expanse of the Milky Way, now a gleaming stripe across the sky. Where dark spaces in the sky had usually existed, there were now dense clusters of sparkling stars Shooting stars flashed across the canvas every few seconds. It was like a fireworks display with no sound. I knew I had to get my eyes back on the instruments, and reluctantly I brought my attention back inside. To my surprise, with the cockpit lighting still off, I could see every gauge, lit by starlight. In the plane’s mirrors, I could see the eerie shine of my gold spacesuit incandescently illuminated in a celestial glow. I stole one last glance out the window. Despite our speed, we seemed still before the heavens, humbled in the radiance of a much greater power. For those few moments, I felt a part of something far more significant than anything we were doing in the plane. The sharp sound of Walt’s voice on the radio brought me back to the tasks at hand as I prepared for our descent.


The SR-71 was an expensive aircraft to operate. The most significant cost was tanker support, and in 1990, confronted with budget cutbacks, the Air Force retired the SR-71.The Blackbird had outrun nearly 4,000 missiles, not once taking a scratch from enemy fire.

On her final flight, the Blackbird, destined for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum , sped from Los Angeles to Washington in 64 minutes, averaging 2,145 mph and setting four speed records.

The SR-71 served six presidents, protecting America for a quarter of a century. Unbeknownst to most of the country, the plane flew over North Vietnam , Red China, North Korea , the Middle East, South Africa , Cuba , Nicaragua , Iran , Libya , and the Falkland Islands . On a weekly basis, the SR-71 kept watch over every Soviet nuclear submarine and mobile missile site, and all of their troop movements. It was a key factor in winning the Cold War.

I am proud to say I flew about 500 hours in this aircraft. I knew her well. She gave way to no plane, proudly dragging her sonic boom through enemy backyards with great impunity. She defeated every missile, outran every MiG, and always brought us home. In the first 100 years of manned flight, no aircraft was more remarkable.

Approaching the Libyan Coast
With the Libyan coast fast approaching now, Walt asks me for the third time, if I think the jet will get to the speed and altitude we want in time. I tell him yes. I know he is concerned. He is dealing with the data; that’s what engineers do, and I am glad he is. But I have my hands on the stick and throttles and can feel the heart of a thoroughbred, running now with the power and perfection she was designed to possess. I also talk to her. Like the combat veteran she is, the jet senses the target area and seems to prepare herself.

For the first time in two days, the inlet door closes flush and all vibration is gone. We’ve become so used to the constant buzzing that the jet sounds quiet now in comparison. The Mach correspondingly increases slightly and the jet is flying in that confidently smooth and steady style we have so often seen at these speeds. We reach our target altitude and speed, with five miles to spare. Entering the target area, in response to the jet’s new-found vitality, Walt says, ‘That’s amazing’ and with my left hand pushing two throttles farther forward, I think to myself that there is much they don’t teach in engineering school.

Out my left window, Libya looks like one huge sandbox. A featureless brown terrain stretches all the way to the horizon. There is no sign of any activity. Then Walt tells me that he is getting lots of electronic signals, and they are not the friendly kind. The jet is performing perfectly now, flying better than she has in weeks. She seems to know where she is. She likes the high Mach, as we penetrate deeper into Libyan airspace. Leaving the footprint of our sonic boom across Benghazi , I sit motionless, with stilled hands on throttles and the pitch control, my eyes glued to the gauges.


Only the Mach indicator is moving, steadily increasing in hundredths, in a rhythmic consistency similar to the long distance runner who has caught his second wind and picked up the pace. The jet was made for this kind of performance and she wasn’t about to let an errant inlet door make her miss the show. With the power of forty locomotives, we puncture the quiet African sky and continue farther south across a bleak landscape.

Under Attack
Walt continues to update me with numerous reactions he sees on the DEF panel. He is receiving missile tracking signals. With each mile we traverse, every two seconds, I become more uncomfortable driving deeper into this barren and hostile land. I am glad the DEF panel is not in the front seat. It would be a big distraction now, seeing the lights flashing. In contrast, my cockpit is ‘quiet’ as the jet purrs and relishes her new-found strength, continuing to slowly accelerate.

The spikes are full aft now, tucked twenty-six inches deep into the nacelles. With all inlet doors tightly shut, at 3.24 Mach, the J-58s are more like ramjets now, gulping 100,000 cubic feet of air per second. We are a roaring express now, and as we roll through the enemy’s backyard, I hope our speed continues to defeat the missile radars below. We are approaching a turn, and this is good. It will only make it more difficult for any launched missile to solve the solution for hitting our aircraft.

I push the speed up at Walt’s request. The jet does not skip a beat, nothing fluctuates, and the cameras have a rock steady platform. Walt received missile launch signals. Before he can say anything else, my left hand instinctively moves the throttles yet farther forward. My eyes are glued to temperature gauges now, as I know the jet will willingly go to speeds that can harm her. The temps are relatively cool and from all the warm temps we’ve encountered thus far, this surprises me but then, it really doesn’t surprise me. Mach 3.31 and Walt is quiet for the moment.


I move my gloved finder across the small silver wheel on the autopilot panel which controls the aircraft’s pitch. With the deft feel known to Swiss watchmakers, surgeons, and ‘dinosaurs’ (old- time pilots who not only fly an airplane but ‘feel it’), I rotate the pitch wheel somewhere between one-sixteenth and one-eighth inch location, a position which yields the 500-foot-per-minute climb I desire. The jet raises her nose one-sixth of a degree and knows, I’ll push her higher as she goes faster. The Mach continues to rise, but during this segment of our route, I am in no mood to pull throttles back.

Walt’s voice pierces the quiet of my cockpit with the news of more missile launch signals. The gravity of Walter’s voice tells me that he believes the signals to be a more valid threat than the others. Within seconds he tells me to ‘push it up’ and I firmly press both throttles against their stops. For the next few seconds, I will let the jet go as fast as she wants. A final turn is coming up and we both know that if we can hit that turn at this speed, we most likely will defeat any missiles. We are not there yet, though, and I’m wondering if Walt will call for a defensive turn off our course.

With no words spoken, I sense Walter is thinking in concert with me about maintaining our programmed course. To keep from worrying, I glance outside, wondering if I’ll be able to visually pick up a missile aimed at us. Odd are the thoughts that wander through one’s mind in times like these. I found myself recalling the words of former SR-71 pilots who were fired upon while flying missions over North Vietnam They said the few errant missile detonations they were able to observe from the cockpit looked like implosions rather than explosions. This was due to the great speed at which the jet was hurling away from the exploding missile.

I see nothing outside except the endless expanse of a steel blue sky and the broad patch of tan earth far below. I have only had my eyes out of the cockpit for seconds, but it seems like many minutes since I have last checked the gauges inside. Returning my attention inward, I glance first at the miles counter telling me how many more to go, until we can start our turn Then I note the Mach, and passing beyond 3.45, I realize that Walter and I have attained new personal records. The Mach continues to increase. The ride is incredibly smooth.

181rufxjxhy8xjpgThere seems to be a confirmed trust now, between me and the jet; she will not hesitate to deliver whatever speed we need, and I can count on no problems with the inlets. Walt and I are ultimately depending on the jet now – more so than normal – and she seems to know it. The cooler outside temperatures have awakened the spirit born into her years ago, when men dedicated to excellence took the time and care to build her well. With spikes and doors as tight as they can get, we are racing against the time it could take a missile to reach our altitude.

In Love With the Blackbird
It is a race this jet will not let us lose. The Mach eases to 3.5 as we crest 80,000 feet. We are a bullet now – except faster. We hit the turn, and I feel some relief as our nose swings away from a country we have seen quite enough of. Screaming past Tripoli , our phenomenal speed continues to rise, and the screaming Sled pummels the enemy one more time, laying down a parting sonic boom. In seconds, we can see nothing but the expansive blue of the Mediterranean . I realize that I still have my left hand full-forward and we’re continuing to rocket along in maximum afterburner.

The TDI now shows us Mach numbers, not only new to our experience but flat out scary. Walt says the DEF panel is now quiet, and I know it is time to reduce our incredible speed. I pull the throttles to the min ‘burner range and the jet still doesn’t want to slow down. Normally the Mach would be affected immediately, when making such a large throttle movement, but for just a few moments old 960 just sat out there at the high Mach, she seemed to love and like the proud Sled she was, only began to slow when we were well out of danger.

I loved that jet.

Major Brian Shul is the author of Sled Driver, a fascinating account of his experiences as a pilot of the SR-71 Blackbird. The book has been out of print for two years now, but now you can buy one of the 3,500 limited edition copies—signed by Shul and other SR-71 legends—here. There are only a few left, so hurry up.

Excerpts via, a site dedicated to the officers and enlisted men who served with VFP-62, Light Photographic Squadron 62, Home Base Cecil Field (NZC), FLA. It’s full of great anecdotes and images.

McDonnell-Douglas F-4D Phantom II Cockpit Resurrected from the Dead

David Garbe's F-4D Phantom II cockpit as it looked when he acquired it in 2006. (photo via David Garbe)

David Garbe’s F-4D Phantom II cockpit as it looked when he acquired it in 2006. (photo via David Garbe)

by Warbird News

The hobby of collecting aircraft cockpits first really took off, so to speak, in the UK, where hundreds of people are involved in their collection, restoration and display. These range from just the actual cockpit section, all the way up to entire forward fuselages of aircraft types as large as an Avro Vulcan bomber. Typically, the aircraft types involved are ex-military aircraft, although some general aviation types are represented, and even airliners in a few cases. A big reason behind the hobby is that it allows the average person with a relatively small budget and limited storage space to own a significant piece of aviation history which they can then display alongside more affluent individuals with the income to support actual flying examples. It isn’t unusual to find a cockpit section displayed at an air show in the UK, and they even hold mass gatherings, such as the much heralded Cockpit Fest at the Newark Air Museum near Newark, England. More recently, the enthusiasm for collecting cockpit sections has begun to take hold in the USA, with the Kansas Aviation Museum holding their second cockpit festival event in March, 2013. Cockpit sections are beginning to show up regularly at US air shows as well.


David Garbe's F-4D Phantom II cockpit on its specialized 30' transport trailer. (photo via David Garbe)

David Garbe’s F-4D Phantom II cockpit on its specialized 30′ transport trailer. (photo via David Garbe)


David Garbe is one such individual with a passion for vintage military aviation. He acquired his first military jet cockpit back in 2006, a McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom II. The aircraft flew with the US Air Force as 65-0720 starting in 1966. In 1972, she saw service during the war over Viet Nam flying with the “Triple Nickel”, the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing out of Udorn AFB in Thailand.


Garbe's F-4 cockpit and his Photo Booth at an air show this year. (photo via David Garbe)

Garbe’s F-4 cockpit and his Photo Booth at an air show this year. (photo via David Garbe)

When the military was done with the aircraft in 1988, she went into storage, where she sat for some time before eventually succumbing to the scrap man. Fortunately her cockpit section, though severely battered, lived on long enough for Garbe to acquire it. He spent the next eight years pouring love and money into the crunched-up fuselage until finally she emerged in pristine condition. What was a hobby, has now turned into a small business touring the cockpit section around various air shows, selling self-portraits to the many willing visitors who pay to sit in the cockpit. This isn’t an inexpensive venture to start of course, as it requires a significant outlay of cash, even after the expenses involved in acquiring and restoring the cockpit. For instance, Garbe had to build himself a custom 30′ long trailer to haul the several ton fuselage section. He had to buy and install custom-made safety railings and stairs to allow people to climb into the cockpit with a minimum of difficulty. He also had to purchase liability insurance to the tune of US$1Million before any air show would allow him to appear. And then there’s the Ford F-350 pick up truck he needed to buy to tow the cockpit on its trailer.

Garbe's F-4 cockpit and his Photo Booth at an air show this year. (photo via David Garbe)

Garbe’s F-4 cockpit and his Photo Booth at an air show this year. (photo via David Garbe)

Initial expenses aside, the Phantom cockpit has been a big hit on the air show circuit with people lining up to have their photograph taken sitting in the cockpit wearing a pilot’s helmet. All types of people from young children to little old ladies seem to enjoy the experience. His first show was in Geneseo, New York this year, and he plans on a small run of nine other shows over the season. He is also campaigning the cockpit for private events as well. To find out more about David and his Phantom II, please visit his website HERE. He also has a Facebook page HERE.

David Garbe's suplus F-4C Phantom II project is for sale. It comes complete with most of the necessary parts. (David Garbe photo)

David Garbe’s suplus F-4C Phantom II project is for sale. It comes complete with most of the necessary parts. (David Garbe photo)

Garbe also has a spare F-4C Phantom II which is available for sale. It was an old battle damage repair airframe he acquired in 2007 to help with the rebuild of his F-4D. The aircraft needs a full restoration, but comes with most of the necessary parts to make it externally whole, as well as many of the hard to find cockpit components. It comes with the tail section, wing center section, radome, forward canopy, complete forward instrument panel, forward and aft sticks/grips plus about 80% of the internal boxes and panels. Contact David Garbe through his website for more details (see earlier).

More photos of the F-4C project.

via McDonnell-Douglas F-4D Phantom II Cockpit Resurrected from the Dead.

Lockheed P-38J Lightning “23 Skidoo”

ShutterSpeedAero Photography

Pacific Coast Dream Machines Show, Half Moon Bay, HDR, ECO,@Half Moon Bay Airport, CA

April 2014

This year’s Pacific Coast Dream Machines show was fortunate to have a P-38 in attendance.  “23 Skidoo” is the Lightning owned by the Planes of Fame Museum and operates out of Chino, CA.  This aircraft never saw any combat before being surplused and changing hands until being restored to flying condition in 1988.  The P-38 wears the markings of “23 Skidoo”, flown by Captain Perry J. “Pee Wee” Dahl of the 432th Fighter Squadron, 475th Fighter Group.  Nikon D300 w/18-200mm, processing with Photomatix and Aperture.

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USAF debates future fighter requirement

The next generation of weapons technology that replaces the Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-35 may not be a single-seater or even a fighter, but the end result should have a larger magazine, according to the retiring head of the US Air Force’s Air Combat Command (ACC).

Bringing to light at least five years of internal discussions about a so-called “sixth-generation fighter”, Gen Mike Hostage’s remarks on 30 July at an event hosted by the Air Force Association (AFA) illustrates the rapidly evolving nature of the air dominance mission.

“It isn’t necessarily another single-seat fighter,” says Hostage, according to an audio recording posted online by the AFA. “I’ve been telling the teams that work for me, ‘Don’t start into this process thinking single-engine [or] twin-engine. Don’t be thinking in terms of a platform’.”

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Hostage’s comments echo similar sentiments in a 2009 ACC request for information. The document sought industry feedback on sixth-generation air dominance technologies, including ground-based and non-kinetic solutions to airborne threats.

In his role as ACC commander, Hostage was charged with shaping the requirements for whatever follows the F-35 in the air force’s acquisition process, and he has preserved the open-ended approach outlined in the 2009 document.

“If it’s a single button on a keyboard that makes all our adversaries fall to the ground, I’m okay with that,” Hostage says.

However, while Hostage is publicly emphasising a diverse range of technologies, industry officials have been promoting platform-based concepts. Three major combat aircraft design houses – Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman – have released concept designs for a sixth-generation fighter featuring supersonic, tailless characteristics.

Since 2009, the air force has released a variety of reports on future air dominance technologies – including a concept for a tailless supersonic air vehicle. Air dominance weapons have also been studied, although the status of a next-generation air-to-air missile is shrouded in secrecy.

For Hostage, a key limitation of relying on a single platform appears to be the limited magazine of onboard weapons. He laments that although the F-22 can penetrate highly defended airspace, its internal weapons bay is limited to eight missiles.

“I can only whack eight bad guys in the process,” Hostage says. “I’d like to go there and whack a whole bunch of them.”

It may seem early to start thinking about a sixth-generation weapon system, as the two fifth-generation fighters are still relatively young. The F-22 entered service in 2006, and the F-35A is not scheduled to achieve initial operational capability until fiscal year 2016.

Hostage, however, thinks the air force is already behind schedule for fielding a replacement aircraft in time.

“Given that tortuous acquisition process, we’re already behind the timeline to get something on the ramp in order to properly phase out an aging fleet. I’m living with an ancient fleet at the moment,” Hostage says.

US Army qualifies AH-64E Apaches for deck landings

The US Army has achieved deck-landing qualification status for its Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopters, following trials on board the US Navy amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu.

The E-variant of the rotorcraft – assigned to the service’s 1st Armed Reconnaissance Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment – qualified during the navy’s Rim of the Pacific exercise off the coast of Hawaii on 19 July. The aircraft are normally based at Fort Carson, Colorado.

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US Army

Attaining the qualification will allow the army to land AH-64Es on USN ships to refuel and rearm, as well as opening up the range of operations the rotorcraft can conduct.

“In the event of conflict, we would be able to deploy our aircraft via a ship to land and be able to operate in a maritime environment,” the service says.

Eight Apaches have been training in Hawaii, but additional evaluations – including exercises further out into the Pacific – are required before they return to Fort Carson in mid-August, the army says.