Retro Monday: Flying the SR-71 Blackbird

Sister site Kit Up! just published this great vignette about operating an all-time classic of military technology -- the legendary SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. Former Blackbird driver Maj. Brian Shul describes pushing his SR-71 past Mach 3.5 over Libya to outrun Gadhafi's surface-to-air missiles in April 1986. Shul's fascinating account gives a pilot's perspective on flying the big black jet at the edge of space at speeds that no other manned jet has hit. In its nearly 40-years of service, the SR-71 flew countless dangerous missions provided critical intelligence on dozens of major world events. In all, nearly 4,000 SAMs were fired at the Blackbird. None of them ever touched it.

Here's an excerpt from Shul's account, which has been around for years but is still a lot of fun to read:

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.

There 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.

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.

How could you not love that plane. While there's been decades of speculation about the SR-71s replacement being a secret, even-faster, manned-spy plane, I'll bet it's been replaced by a combination of spy satellites that can easily be re-positioned, the X-37B space plane, and secret, stealthy -- but slower -- UAVs like the RQ-170 Sentinel. Meanwhile, our efforts to develop jets that can fly faster than the Blackbird continue to encounter problems.

Click here for the full story.

Also, check out DT's earlier piece on how the Air Force covered up the crash of the SR-71's predecessor, the A-12, in the Utah desert.

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