Praetorium Honoris

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Friday Flyby - 18 April

One of the most impressive aircraft I ever saw in my Air Force career was the SR-71 Blackbird.
The Lockheed SR-71 "Blackbird" was an advanced, long-range, Mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance aircraft. It was developed as a black project from the Lockheed A-12 reconnaissance aircraft in the 1960s by Lockheed and its Skunk Works division. Clarence "Kelly" Johnson was responsible for many of the design's innovative concepts. During reconnaissance missions, the SR-71 operated at high speeds and altitudes to allow it to outrace threats. If a surface-to-air missile launch was detected, the standard evasive action was simply to accelerate and outfly the missile.
The SR-71 served with the U.S. Air Force from 1964 to 1998. A total of 32 aircraft were built; 12 were lost in accidents, but none lost to enemy action. The SR-71 has been given several nicknames, including Blackbird and Habu. Since 1976, it has held the world record for the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft, a record previously held by the YF-12. Wikipedia
I first saw the SR-71 was when I was assigned to the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing at Kadena AB, Okinawa. There were a few of them assigned to a SAC detachment on the other side of the base. Each launch and recovery of one of these birds was a show all to itself.

Typically the jet would taxi out to the runway accompanied by a retinue of Security Police vehicles, maintenance vehicles and about six colonels in their own vehicles (and a partridge in a pear tree!) All with flashing lights and the occasional sounding of horns/sirens. Quite a sight!

The last time I saw the SR-71 was when I was assigned to SAC at Offutt AFB, Nebraska. This was a bird making its last flight before going to the museum just outside the gate. It was, to me, a very sad occasion. I think it was for the crew as well, because prior to setting her down for the last time, they put on quite a show. Multiple high speed passes at low altitude with a high-G pull up at the end of the airfield.

The SR-71. A fast, high flying marvel.

There's no mistaking the shape of the Habu for anything else.

While deployed to Okinawa, the SR-71s and their aircrew members gained the nickname Habu after a pit viper indigenous to Japan, which the Okinawans thought the plane resembled. - Wikipedia
A NASA-operated SR-71

SR-71B trainer over the Sierra Nevada Mountains

Ahhh - pilots and their "selfies" (this is Major Brian Shul, SR-71 pilot, so yes, it's cool and awesome)

Major Shul with his visor up

View of the earth as seen from the SR-71 Blackbird at approximately 73,000 feet...

Major Shul's story is pretty fascinating -
Brian Shul (born 1948), is a Vietnam-era USAF fighter pilot and a retired major in the United States Air Force (USAF). He flew 212 combat missions and was shot down near the end of the war. He was so badly burned that he was given next to no chance to live. Surviving, he returned to full flight status, flying the SR-71 Blackbird. Major Brian Shul completed a 20 year career in the Air Force. He has written four books on aviation and runs a photo studio in Marysville, California.  - Wikipedia
Major Brian Shul, USAF

You can read more about the Major here. If you can get a hold of a copy of his book Sled Driver, jump on it. It is no longer in print but is floating around out there on the web of world-wideness. Good stuff!

SR-71 Pilot's Cockpit

Awesomeness x 2!

SR-71 Cutaway Drawing

SR-71 In 'Burner
Taxiing Out (Bring the Heat!)

What do the A-10 and the SR-71 have in common?

Big Air Force (read that as "the bean-counting, non-warfighters in the Five Sided Puzzle Palace") doesn't like them. Let Wikipedia tell it (somewhat edited by me).
Initial Retirement
In the 1970s, the SR-71 was placed under closer Congressional scrutiny and, with budget concerns, the program was soon under attack. Both Congress and the USAF sought to focus on newer projects like the B-1 Lancer and upgrades to the B-52 Stratofortress, whose replacement was being developed.

The SR-71 had never gathered significant supporters within the Air Force, making it an easy target for cost-conscious politicians. Dick Cheney told the Senate Appropriations Committee that the SR-71 cost $85,000 per hour to operate. Opponents of the program estimated it cost $400 million per year to support; that number was subsequently reduced to $260 million. Also, parts were no longer being manufactured for the aircraft, so other airframes had to be cannibalized to keep the fleet airworthy. The aircraft's lack of a datalink (unlike the Lockheed U-2) meant that imagery and radar data could not be used in real time, but had to wait until the aircraft returned to base. The Air Force saw the SR-71 as a bargaining chip which could be sacrificed to ensure the survival of other priorities. A general misunderstanding of the nature of aerial reconnaissance and a lack of knowledge about the SR-71 in particular (due to its secretive development and usage) was used by detractors to discredit the aircraft, with the assurance given that a replacement was under development. In 1988, Congress was convinced to allocate $160,000 to keep six SR-71s (along with a trainer model) in flyable storage that would allow the fleet to become airborne within 60 days. The USAF refused to spend the money. While the SR-71 survived attempts to retire it in 1988, partly due to the unmatched ability to provide high-quality coverage of the Kola Peninsula for the US Navy, the decision to retire the SR-71 from active duty came in 1989, with the SR-71 flying its last missions in October that year.

Funds were redirected to the financially troubled B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit programs. Four months after the plane's retirement, General Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., was told that the expedited reconnaissance which the SR-71 could have provided was unavailable during Operation Desert Storm.

Due to increasing unease about political conditions in the Middle East and North Korea, the U.S. Congress re-examined the SR-71 beginning in 1993.

Final Retirement
The reactivation met much resistance: the Air Force had not budgeted for the aircraft, and UAV developers worried that their programs would suffer if money was shifted to support the SR-71s. Also, with the allocation requiring yearly reaffirmation by Congress, long-term planning for the SR-71 was difficult. In 1996, the Air Force claimed that specific funding had not been authorized, and moved to ground the program. Congress reauthorized the funds, but, in October 1997, President Bill Clinton attempted to use the line-item veto to cancel the $39 million allocated for the SR-71. In June 1998, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the line-item veto was unconstitutional. All this left the SR-71's status uncertain until September 1998, when the Air Force called for the funds to be redistributed. The plane was permanently retired in 1998. The Air Force quickly disposed of its SR-71s, leaving NASA with the two last airworthy Blackbirds until 1999. All other Blackbirds have been moved to museums except for the two SR-71s and a few D-21 drones retained by the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center.

The SR-71


  1. No cooler aircraft has ever existed. And we lost it's capability for all time when people who don't do or understand the work that it did decided to kill it off in it's prime. Now I go to the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy museum just to touch one.

    1. Amen to that.

      Still pisses me off, the rank stupidity that killed the SR-71.

  2. Several points of contact between me and the SR-71. First time I saw it, it made it's first public flyby at the Air Force Academy when I was around 10. Pretty high up, but going like a bat outta hell (at least to me, crew considerations later). Man, that was cool.
    Second point of contact, like Sarge, got to watch the show at Kadena. In fact, we used to practice against them when they'd come back from a mission. We had a requirement to be able to intercept high, fast fliers like the Mig-25. So we'd run against the Blackbird. 200 mile setup, we'd be orbiting in the high 30s, get the commit from AWACS or GCI. Light the burners and push it over into a zero g dive (minimize drag). At a given range, we'd pull the aircraft into a 45 degree climb and start firing as soom as the bird was in range trying to keep the target illuminated with the radar until the missile timed out. Time from commit to timeout was extremely short and any miscue was problematic. The highest I ever got in an Eagle was the result of one of those miscue. Instead of starting the pushover at 200, I was still turning hot and finally got started at about 160nm. Started the pull a little late, and had to keep pulling in order to keep the target illuminating. Ended up in a 60+ degree climb as I ran out of airspeed. Two things happened. 1. No air, no fires coming out the back. 2. No air, no pressure to move the aircraft when you move the flight controls. I was in command of a large, quiet bullet. 78,196', the nose of the aircraft started back down. (I found that out, later by reviewing the video, at the time, I was more worried about the cabin pressure, so was paying more attention to that gauge.) Recovery and landing were normal, although I did note that my flight suit seemed a bit more sweaty than usual. I used that mission as a simulator exercise from there on out.
    Brian Shul was in my squadron at Holloman also. The 435th had a plethora of been there, done that pilots. Just what a wet behind the ears, snot nosed, 500 hr Fighter Pilot needed. Happy Hour was almost always a very educational experience.
    Last Point of Contact. I was on the Air Staff in 95-96 as a budget manager. One of my programs was the SR-71. I was the guy that had to zero out the budget and shut the program down.

    1. Skipped a part. At Kadena, we were talking at the bar one nite with a couple of Habu pilots about our High Fast intercepts. They chuckled and said they called them the "Low, Slow" part of the mission. On the mission I went so high, as the nose pitched down, they passed over the top of me, by a lot. Oh, and it may be called Blackbird, but it is not black in flight, it is white hot.

    2. Great stories Juvat.

      You knew all the cool kids didn't you?

    3. P.S. I liked the "large, quiet bullet" phrase. Well said. I can well imagine you'd be keeping an eye on the cabin pressure!

    4. Great comment, juvat. Just GREAT.

    5. Great story. We used to do pop-ups in the Deuce in the sixties. The ORI targets always came in high. Not nearly as high as you Our high was lower than your high.

  3. Murph has it right- a very cool aircraft indeed. The pics are great too- the one with the guys in spacesuit flight suits is epic. I'd read about Major Shul before, which is such a great story, I'll post the link here. It's too long to post it in its entirety. (I tried).

    SR-71 Blackbird Communication to Tower

    1. I've read that story before. It never gets old!

  4. Gorgeous aircraft and still unmatched in its capabilities (at least in the unclassified world). All designed with a slide rule and a huge brass pair to throw conventional out the window.

    1. Man, that's right. Slide rules and brass ones, that's all the old school designers needed.

  5. Looks a bit like the stealth bomber.

  6. I only saw the SR-71 fly once... I was "in the area" when one left RAF Mildenhall in the early '80s. They DO NOT waste any time gettin' outta Dodge.

  7. Do you remember when Larry Bankus took his camera to the end of the runway and was taking pic's of one of the Habu's as it was getting ready to take off? The commander had to rescue him from the SP's and he was not in very good favor with the CO for the rest of his time on the rock.

    1. OMG I had forgotten that. Larry and his camera at the end of the runway! Hahahahaha!!!!

      Yeah, old Larry didn't really cover himself with glory that day. Thanks for reminding me. Hysterical.

    2. The story stayed with him. When I was running swing shift at Tyndall ( Larry was working for me then) Major General James, the wing commander, came
      in for a visit one evening and the first thing he wanted to know was the story about "Larry and the Habu". Said he had heard about it at the "O" club.

    3. And here I spent all those years not knowing that Larry was famous.

      (It ain't good when they talk about you at the O'Club!)

  8. Ran across this article years ago. Supposedly written by Maj. Shul.

  9. We didn't try to hide or be invisible. No. We decided to fly higher and faster than anything they could make could touch us.

    Aim Higher. Fly higher and faster.

    That way you do what you want and annoy them to death. And there's nothing wrong with that.

    I linger knowing that was once what we did and hate that we don't do it anymore. We have fallen so far.

    1. Your last line speaks volumes Cap'n. Volumes.

  10. Love the Blackbird, thanks for the informative post. I never knew of the Blackbirds link to Habu, although I do know more than I care to of the Habu Sake' liquor.

    1. Ah, 酒! I too have some knowledge in that area (saké that is!)


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

NOTE: Comments on posts over 5 days old go into moderation, automatically.