January 6, 2012


I have always been fascinated by “things” that fly; pterodactyls, pidgins, kites, Superman and airplanes; but ALWAYS airplanes.  As a kid growing up in rural east Tennessee, I would assemble model airplanes until I was drunk from “sniffing” the Testers glue.  I had a model of just about every flying machine made by man, dating back to pre-WWI days.  As I got older, I invested time and money into building “U-control” planes and spent Saturday afternoons competing with a couple of buddies on one of the local ball fields.  I soloed at the age of 15 in a fabric-covered Piper Tri-Pacer and had to wait a whole year before I could take my check ride.  The FAA inspector was somewhat amazed when he saw I had 172 hours of flying time prior to that ride.

Enough of that, point made.  Let’s flash forward a few years to Hill Air Force Base, Ogden, Utah.  Home of the Ogden Air Materiel Area (OAMA).  OAMA is a TAC (Tactical Air Command) Base that supported silo versions of the Titan II missile and refurbished F-4 Phantom fighters coming back from Vietnam.  One chilly Sunday afternoon I was the assigned APO (Air Protocol Officer) pulling a twenty-four hour temporary duty.  APO and OD (Officer of the Day) responsibilities were typically assigned to junior officers; 1st Lieutenant through Captain.  Captain Bob (that’s me) was in the control tower swapping lies and talking football with the ATC (air traffic controllers) when a distress call came in from a pilot whose voice definitely had an edge to it.  No panic—just real concern.  This was in the fall of 1969.  He indicated the loss of one engine and definitely needed to land ASAP.  Hill AFB was the nearest facility.  The ATC started clearing air space for his arrival.  One small item, “I’m flying an SR-71 Blackbird so I will need maximum security, including a guarded hanger during repairs.”   The Blackbird became fully operational in 1966 so most pilots felt there was still a “learning curve” to overcome.  Also, it had technology that could not fall into the wrong hands.   I called the air police headquarters, told them the situation and then called the Deputy Base Commander, in that order.  The APs completely understood the significance of the arrival and dispatched a squad of armed personnel within minutes of my call.  The pilot did not declare an emergency because he was in complete control for the descent and landing, which was uneventful.  Even though this was the case, emergency vehicles; i.e. fire trucks, EMT vans, foam equipment etc were available and along the runway to handle any unexpected events that might happen.  This is SOP. 

I have been around airplanes all of my life, but to this day, never have I seen one to equal what I saw that Sunday afternoon.  First, it is a huge, huge airplane.  Long, wide and tall.  Jet black, twin inclined vertical tails and a blunt nose right out of Star Wars.  I heard someone say that if and airplane looks like it will fly, it will fly.  This one looked like it would fly and fast.   It is without a doubt the most futuristic airplane I have ever seen or probably will ever see.  The two JPEGS below will give you an idea as to the configuration.  Take a look and then we will list several aspects of the configuration and performance.


SR-71 Blackbird


The JPEG above does not really do the plane justice relative to size but you can see the remarkably sleek lines.  Notice how the engines are “blended” into the wing structure and their placement to minimize vibration and improve wing stability and integrity.  I wonder how many wind tunnel hours were necessary to “prove” the design.  Next, let’s take a look at the cockpit.

SR-71 Cockpit

Please note that all of the instruments are analog in nature.  No digital readouts at all.  A pilot had to scan his “dash” repeatedly to obtain a continuing status of each gage.  No “heads-up” displays, no flashing LEDs, no obvious computers providing voice-activated warnings when necessary.  I know the layout of the instrumentation took considerable time and thought prior to placement.  Now let us consider several facts and performance specifications.

  • The service life of the operational SR-71 was 1966 to the late 1980s.  The planes were fully retired from the Air Force in 1990.  Two were used after the 1990 date by NASA for high altitude studies
  • Only 93 Air Force officers were trained to fly the SR-71s.  There were fewer -71 pilots than astronauts.
  • The first series was designated A-12 with the first flight being April 1962.  This flight was made by Lockheed test pilot Lou Schalk.  The design genesis was the work of Kelly Johnson’s Skunk Works.  The Skunk Works employed only seventy-two people, engineers, draftsmen, manufacturing specialists, etc.  A remarkably small team of highly dedicated individuals—each know their jobs inside and out.
  • Due to excessive temperatures, high temperature fuel, lubricants, sealants and components had to be designed and assembled, not to mention insulating materials to keep the pilot and technical officer cool.
  • Each member of the flight crew wore very special clothing specifically designed for high altitude.  The clothing was more in line with what you would expect for an astronaut.
  • 93% of the airframe was made from titanium alloy.
  • The cockpit glass was designed to withstand operational temperatures of 650 degrees F.
  • Two Pratt and Whitney J58 turbojet engines, each developing 35,000 pounds of thrust each, were employed to drive the plane.  Each engine required 100,000 cubic feet of air per second.
  • Specifications:
  1. Wingspan:                   55’-7”
  2. Length:                         107’-5”
  3. Height:                         18’-6”
  4. Wet Weight:              170,000 pounds
  5. Maximum Speed:    2,000 + miles per hour
  6. Rate of Climb:            1,140 feet per minute
  7. Service Ceiling:          85,000 feet
  8. Range:                          3,200 miles

I told you it was a monster.  On September 1, 1974, an Sr-71 flew from New York City to London in 1 hour and 54 minutes.  This was 3 hours faster than the “old” record.    

In our case, the repairs were made by an experienced crew flown in specifically for the purpose of getting this baby back in the air.  The equipment and components required came in a separate plane; even they were guarded.  No one but the repairmen were allowed in the hangar.  The process took approximately 3 days.  I was again in the tower during preflight and the takeoff.   The sight was really something to behold.  It was gone in an instant.   I have no idea as to how much runway the plane needed prior to nose wheel rotation but that was achieved in a spit second.  Ladies and gentlemen let me emphasize that this marvelous piece of engineering and management was accomplished without the use of computers, parametric modeling, mathematical algorithms defining air flow over the surfaces, etc etc.  We are talking about knowledgeable engineers, using slide rules, trig tables, drafting tables and reams of paper to design this marvelous airplane.  To me, this is an engineering accomplishment that rivals the space program itself.  All accomplished by passionate Americans given a target, a goal and enthusiasm for the venture.  I hope you agree.



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