DECLASSIFIED: Spying at Mach 3+: our Interview with SR-71 Blackbird pilot reveals how US lured North Korea to shoot missiles

From the 1960s until the 1990s the US spied on whoever it liked with impunity from the snapping cameras and greedy sensors of the fastest aeroplane ever to take off from a runway, the spectacular SR-71 Blackbird. We spoke to pilot BC Thomas about life in the most exciting seat in the world. 

What was the closest they got to shooting down an SR-71?

“A few miles, maybe. The last known missile launch against the SR-71 was on August 25, 1981 when Maury Rosenberg (pilot) and Ed McKim (RSO) were flying against North Korea. Maury reported that he thought the explosion was a few miles away, but judging distances 15 miles above the earth is difficult because there is nothing with which to compare.

Although the SR-71 had been attacked many times, especially over Vietnam during that war, nothing ever hit an SR-71 aircraft.”

Was the MiG-31 a real threat? What were you most worried about in terms of air defences?

“On every operational mission, we were briefed on the latest threat assessments for both surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and potential enemy interceptors. I was more concerned about the later versions of the Soviet SA-5 SAM than any other threat. The SA-5 could reach Mach 6 (or more), so its time-to-target was relatively quick. Although our warning system would alert us of a missile launch, the time to react and maneuver our aircraft would be short.

Our defense, immediately after having a warning of a missile launch, was to electronically jam the missile’s guidance system, accelerate, climb, and perform a 45-degree banked turn away from the threat.

That procedure worked well against SA-2 missiles, which were launched many times against the SR-71 during the Vietnam War.

In addition to SAM threats, we were often briefed to expect interceptor activity, especially flying over the Baltic Sea or near Murmansk. 

We had experience in the United States flying against some of our own Air Force and Navy interceptors and always, without knowing in advance our course, speed, and altitude, they could not be in-position and ready to fire a simulated anti-aircraft missile successfully.

We believed that without advanced knowledge of our flight path, the probably of a successful intercept was low. There was no procedure or requirement for us to identify or monitor potential interceptors in-flight, so almost all of the crew’s attention was directed to the normal mission responsibilities that we had for any reconnaissance mission. Often we would see contrails which we thought to be fighter aircraft practicing zoom maneuvers to reach our altitude, but I never saw an aircraft close enough to identify it.

I did not consider any Soviet interceptor aircraft to be a reliable threat. Our flying certainly was not hazard-free, because there is always that “lucky” shot. In general, when I was flying over a denied area, I was concentrating on flying the airplane and not concerned about interceptors.

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Even with a “lucky” intercept, which would be very difficult at our speed and altitude, we were briefed that their missile capability and fusing had very low chance of success.

In any case, we were expected to fly our missions as directed, no matter what the perceived threats may have been.  And we did.”

Interview with pilot of the Mach 2.8 Russian MiG-31 interceptor here.

What did the Blackbird offer that satellites could not?

“During the time that the SR-71 was operational, reconnaissance satellite coverage was not 100% over important, selective targets. We, and the Soviets, knew when certain satellites were overhead, so we could cover and/or hide classified equipment so that it could not be seen by the others’ satellite imagery. This gap in observation gave the US an advantage, because the SR-71 could be in position to take pictures (or image by radar) at any specified time; thus in the vernacular, we sneaked up on the Soviet Union or China, or North Korea, or Cuba, or any other target country in the world. We would image what we were assigned anytime, day or night, in good weather or bad. It was a very flexible reconnaissance tool.”

What is the highest and fastest you’ve flown?

“While at Beale AFB, I flew no faster than Mach 3.25. While testing new systems and equipment in the SR-71 at Edwards AFB, we flew almost all missions at Mach 3.2, which was the highest Mach that was attained on the vast majority of operational missions. For some test flights, like testing the Digital Automatic Flight and Inlet Control System (DAFICS) we tested the full flight envelope to Mach 3.3, which is the fastest I flew the Blackbird.

The highest altitude I reached was 86,000 feet while flying a Murmansk mission. I had to fly that high so that I could keep the speed at or below Mach 3.2 (my target speed) while in minimum afterburner. We were never power-limited and most high-Mach cruise missions were flown with the throttles below half-travel within the afterburner range.”

Tell me something I don’t know about the aircraft.

“Perhaps the extent of the ground training we had before our first flight and for recurring training throughout our time flying the SR-71, but that is not airplane specific. For the airplane, I will tell you what two aspects of the aircraft most surprised me.

The astro-inertial navigation system (ANS), once aligned, could automatically track 61stars from a catalog, identifying their position, and through a complicated algorithm, quickly compute the aircraft’s altitude, attitude, speed, ground track, and continually update the aircraft’s position while directly controlling the aircraft’s ground track (if engaged by the pilot) and providing automatic pointing and control of the cameras and sensors. Even at maximum speed, the ANS could provide course guidance within a quarter of one mile. Unbelievable technology before the advent of the Global Positioning System (GPS).

I knew that the faster an aircraft flies, the warmer it becomes, relative to the outside air temperature, but I was quite surprised how hot the aircraft would be at Mach 3 and above. The temperature rise is due to air friction; i.e., each air molecule, when hit by an object traveling around 2,000+ mph, causes an immediate and dramatic heat rise, the rise being a function of the square of the velocity, like the kinetic energy formula KE = 1/2 (mass) times velocity-squared. Bottom line: the temperature of the windshield only 2.5 feet from my face would be 621 degrees F, which is approximately the temperature of an oven during the cleaning cycle. This was one of the greatest challenges to the designers of the SR-71: to keep the cockpit, mission bays, and tires, cool enough. Other problems: invent fuel, hydraulic fluid, sealants, and oil to withstand that kind of heat for hours at-a-time and remain functional.”

What is the greatest myth about the SR-71?

“There were so many. The most outlandish myth is that we could fly in space, or even orbit the earth.

Other myths include: crew members had to be married because we would be more prone to defect to the Soviet Union if we were not. That one really torqued my jaws!  Crew members did not have to be married (some were not), and the notion that any pilot or RSO would ever defect to an enemy country for any reason was both ridiculous and insulting!

Or that we could outrun a missile. We could not outrun the SA-5 for instance, but we had a very reliable warning system which could tell us if a missile were launched against us. Our evasive actions were to immediately electronically jam the guidance system of the missile, accelerate to maximum speed, climb, and turn away from the attack using 45 degrees of bank.  A missile traveling fast and having very limited control over its flight path could not out-turn us.”

What was your most memorable mission? And why?

“When the consequences of one particular flight might have started a war.

The background for this flight began on November 13, 1980 when Jay Reid (RSO) and I flew a reconnaissance mission against North Korea. This was just after President Reagan was elected, and North Korea was sending a message to the new, incoming administration that our flying reconnaissance near/over their territory was unacceptable. The Communists sent this message the next day specifically mentioning our flight:

Obviously the North Koreans were not happy about our persistent and repeated reconnaissance flights against them.

We, the SR-71 crew members, thought it was great to receive such a tirade from the North Koreans. We knew that we had negatively impressed them with our surveillance flights, that they knew we were there, and there was very little they could do about it except write such obvious and typical Communist propaganda screed. We had a few laughs and a round of cheer was in order.

Very little was heard from them until August 25, 1981. Maury Rosenberg (pilot) and Ed McKim (RSO) were flying a 2-loop (our moniker for a mission involving two refuelings) reconnaissance mission, first against Communist China and then North Korea. The pass across North Korea was along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, although North Korea claims sovereignty over South Korea as well. On the second pass, the North Koreans launched a surface-to-air (SAM) SA-2 missile in an attempt to shoot-down the SR-71. They missed by several miles.

Jay Reid and I were at RAF Mildenhall when this happened, and we pilots and RSOs were given a detailed briefing about the incident. Our reaction was not to be very concerned about their ability to hit us, but speculate what change it might portend for future missions. Perhaps we would fly deep into North Korea’s territory, fly more often at night, or increase our sortie rate. In any case, we figured that something would change as a result of their belligerence.

About a month later, on September 24, 1981, Jay and I arrived in Okinawa to start a regular 6-week deployment. Two days later, the Assistant Secretary of Defense, Mr Frank Carluci, came to our detachment (Det 1, 9SRW) to inspect our SR-71 operations. Since Jay and I had been on the island only 2 days (we were not allowed to fly until we had been jet-lagged-acclimated for 3 days), we were designated his briefing officers specifically to show him our airplanes and answer all questions he might have. Part of our briefing included showing him the SR-71, putting him in both cockpits, and giving him an overview of our mission procedures. We especially emphasized the unusual aspects of the aircraft, including the unique controls for the engine inlets, and the defensive and navigational systems. He expressly asked us about the pilots’ and RSOs’ attitude about flying operational missions, especially in light of the attempted shoot-down. We assured him that we were all dedicated to those missions and that the prospect of another missile attack did not particularly bother us because we had ultimate faith in our defensive equipment and our ability to maneuver.

Mr Carluci specifically stated that President Reagan was “furious” that the North Koreans fired on one of our aircraft and that something would be done about it. In the meantime, we were to fly our reconnaissance missions 30 miles south of our normal flight paths.

Ten days later, on October 3, 1981, the US Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, General Robert Mathis, came to Okinawa and briefed the SR-71 crews on the plan to resume normal operational flights.

He said that soon, we would fly a mission exactly like the one flown when the missile was launched at Maury and Ed. He said also that the timing would be critical and that we had to be over the North Korean missile-launch point within one minute, although we should be within 30 seconds if possible. He emphasized the timing was important because if the North Koreans fired another missile at us, US Air Force fighter aircraft would launch an air-to-ground missile attack on the North Korean launch site immediately.

Jay Reid and I flew that mission on October 26, 1981. We took off early, used “timing triangles” to refine our time-over-target, and passed over the launch site within 10 seconds of the critical time. We took a great deal of pride in successfully flying that mission as planned, and in making a very strong statement that we, and by extension, the United States, would not be deterred.

The North Koreans did not fire at us, and I’ll admit that I was a little disappointed, for our reaction would have certainly demonstrated our National resolve. And I don’t like Communist governments either!”

Obviously smitten by our flight and perhaps trying to bluster their way out of an embarrassing situation, the North Korean Communist government issued yet another propaganda blast. This is the message:

We didn’t follow the Communists’ advice and our reconnaissance missions against North Korea continued unabated.

Another significant mission for me and Jay Reid was the time we were forced, because of an aircraft emergency, to land unannounced in Continental Europe (Norway) with highly classified mission materials in the SR-71. “

In what way was flying it different from other aircraft?
“Basically all airplanes fly the same. That may sound strange, but the 3 – dimensional maneuvering of any airplane demands control of left-right, up – down, and fast-slow. Different aircraft have various ways to achieve these movements, but usually to the pilot, control of the aircraft simply comes down to the cockpit controls and how easy or difficult they are to effect the desired performance. The SR-71 had a ‘heavy’ control-stick gradient in pitch, and it was a delicate airplane because of its structural limitations. It weighed 60,000 pounds empty, but carried 80,000 pounds of fuel, which was distributed along its long fuselage length. Since fuel was carried in tanks fore-and-aft of the center-of- gravity (cg), The structural strength was relatively low and the weakest point was at the junction of the delta wing and the forward fuselage. In general, the SR-71 was limited to 1.5 g and 45 degrees of bank while flying Mach 3 and greater; 2 g between 64,000 and 80,000 pounds of fuel; 2.5 g below 64,000 pounds of fuel; and 3.5 g at low altitude (below 50,000 feet) and less than 30,000 pounds of fuel. 

It was never power limited in its normal flying envelope because the engines were more powerful than needed at any normal flight condition: the flight envelope was limited by heat, dynamic pressure, and structural strength.”

What was it like to put on the suit and wear it for long periods?
“We wore pressure suits, which were the same “space suits” used by the Space Shuttle astronauts. It weighed about 30 pounds and was 5 layers of material. We also wore a helmet which attached to a neck ring on the pressure suit. It weighed about 12 pounds and could rotate on the neck ring through a system of ball bearings. The suit could be partially inflated while flying, and that would relieve some of the weight of the helmet on my shoulder. It was air-tight when fully inflated, but normally air could circulate throughout the interior of the suit to keep the pilot and Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO) somewhat comfortable. Some persons had difficulty getting used to wearing it, because it could engender a feeling of claustrophobia. I never had that problem. One large disadvantage however, is that a person wearing a pressure suit is isolated from his own body, and that was my first impression of a potential difficulty: as soon as I lowered my visor, which was never raised again until the aircraft was below 10,000 feet after the mission was completed, something on my face would itch. This happened on almost every flight. The only way to cope with that is to ignore it, and that took some discipline to become accustomed, so that it wouldn’t become a major bother. Another problem was taking sustenance in-flight. That was accomplished by consuming ‘tube food’, which was fed through a hard, plastic straw inserted into a valve at the bottom of the helmet. Awkward at best!”

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Were Soviet defences always aware of your presence?
“We knew that Soviet monitoring ships around Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, were taking note of our departures, but we conducted our operations to minimize that possibility.  Our operational missions were classified, so we did not advertise when we would takeoff or where we were going, and some of our missions were conducted “radio silent” and un-refueled so we made no outside transmissions at all; we called such flights “rocket rides.”  

“At times, flying over the Barents Sea in the vicinity of Murmansk, which was one of our primary missions, we could, by seeing through our periscope, that we were laying down a contrail, because the outside air temperature was much colder than the standard -56 degrees C.  Certainly in those cases, they could see that we were there.  We also knew that they were electronically monitoring us sometimes, because our defensive systems indicated so.  We never over-flew the Soviet Union or Communist China, although we would fly to within 12.5 miles of their land mass.  After passing our target, anyone in the vicinity would hear the rather loud and distinctive “sonic boom,” which we called the “sound of freedom,” but by then, we were well on our way out of the area.”

What were your first impressions of the SR-71?
“When I was a senior in college and in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas in 1964, I saw a picture of the Blackbird (YF-12) shortly after it was announced by President Johnson.  Being interested in aviation, wanting to be a military pilot, and anticipating being commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force, I was very impressed, and thought how wonderful it would be to fly such an aircraft.

The first time I saw the Blackbird ‘in person’ was at an air show at Carswell Air Force Base (AFB) in Ft Worth,Texas in 1966.  It was parked next to the XB-70 and it was the first time that either aircraft was on public display outside of Edwards AFB.  Both airplanes made a deep impression on me as both were advertised to fly in excess of Mach 3, or 2,000 mph.”

What was the best thing about it?
“The best aspect of being an SR-71 pilot was the mission, and I believe all who supported or flew the airplane operationally would agree.  I was absolutely thrilled to be part of the strategic reconnaissance effort of the United States and by extension, the Free World, to survey our potential enemies and glean information that only we could provide, owing to our reconnaissance capability (sensors), and our stealth, flexibility,  speed, and altitude.  We advertised, that with 24-hour notification, we could be over any spot on earth, and capable to reveal what was there.  That boast was successfully tested many times.  And to a pilot who actively sought excitement paired with meaningful accomplishment, the notion of flying the fastest and highest-flying aircraft in the world while contributing to national security was unbeatable.”

and the worst?
“The worst part of flying the SR-71 was the environment in which we flew.  We flew fast and high, which complicated controllability and made over-controlling very dangerous because the SR-71 was delicate and not very maneuverable as compared to other high-performance fighter aircraft.  At Mach 3 and above, which were our usual cruising speeds, our acceleration limit was only 1.5 g, or 45 degrees of bank because of structural heating.  We also operated in near-vacuum, where the air pressure was about 0.4 pounds-per-square-inch (psi), and if we were unprotected, our blood would boil and death would be instantaneous.  

To achieve enough dynamic air pressure to sustain lift, we had to fly fast, when air friction caused the average skin temperature of the aircraft to be 600 degrees F.  The afterburner section was over 1,200 degrees F.  We cruised at 15 miles above the earth so any cockpit environmental problem, such as high temperature, low pressure, or oxygen depletion, could be fatal, because slowing down and descending could not be achieved quickly.”

What was a typical mission?
“Almost all flights, training or operational, followed this general schedule.  We would meet for mission planning the day before the flight to study all of the parameters of the flight, which included its route, what sensors would be carried, when and how to operate them, identify all potential alternate landing sites, check weather and, for operational missions, any political and intelligence information affecting the mission.  Detailed mission planning required advance knowledge, annotating exactly every “action point.” These points include where refueling would take place, the call signs of all tankers, the altitude and length of the air refueling track(s), any in-flight timing which must be met, when/where the supersonic acceleration would start, every turn while flying supersonic, the points at which specific alternate airfields would become primary, the time and position where sensors (cameras, radar imaging, other electronic devices) would be turned on.  The fuel at each such point would be estimated for in-flight correlation and cross-check.”

“On the day of the flight, two hours before take off, we would pick up any classified material we would use in-flight, including our aircraft checklist and mission checklists. We would then report to Base Operations for a weather briefing to cover our entire route, and check the latest Notice to Airmen (NOTAMs) for each potential alternate airfield. Our next stop would be the Physiological Support Division (PSD) where we would meet with our backup crew, who were also the Mobile Crew, whose duty was to preflight our cockpit and coordinate everything for us since, being in pressure suits, our ability to travel and talk to other persons was limited . We also met the SR-71 maintenance crew chief who briefed us on the status of the airplane and signed the aircraft maintenance log book. We usually were given a high-protein, low-residue meal of steak and eggs. At Beale AFB, the same person would act as chef for us so our steaks were cooked to perfection, according to our individual taste.

We would next have a physical exam which always included pulse, blood pressure, sinus, and temperature. Then we would don our pressure suits, which required two persons each to help us into the suit, and two supervisors to assure that everything was properly connected and tested real-time. That process took about 20 minutes. With portable air-conditioning units, we would make our way to the PSD van and be driven to the SR-71, usually located in its own hangar. Last-minute cockpit checks, starting engines, performing more checks with the engines running, taxiing to the active runway and performing more engine checks at 100% rpm took about 30 minutes. The mobile crew would drive down the runway to check for any foreign objects which might either be ingested into the engines, or damage the tires.

Read ‘My fight with secret MiGs’ by an F-15 Eagle pilot here

We would then be cleared for takeoff at a pre-determined time. About 15 seconds prior to that time, I would smoothly, but deliberately advance the throttles to Military power (MIL) which is 100% rpm on both engines without afterburner (reheat). Brake release was done precisely at takeoff time and the throttles were immediately advanced to the minimum afterburner position. When both burners ignited, hardly ever at the same instant, I would advance the throttles to maximum thrust, which was about 68,000 pounds of thrust at sea-level. Acceleration was quick, takeoff distance was about 4,500-5,000 feet in 25 seconds. Rotation accomplished at 180 knots with takeoff at 210 knots. I would keep the aircraft low to the runway to gain climb speed as quickly as possible; however, approaching the gear-down limiting airspeed of 300 knots, I often would either increase pitch or retard the throttles slightly to avoid overspeed. By the departure end of the runway, we would attain climb speed of 400 knots, then raise the nose to about 23 degrees of pitch to continue the climb. Rate-of-climb would sustain about 12,500 feet-per- minute until reaching our intermediate altitude of 25,000 feet above Mean Sea Level (MSL). Brake release to 400 knots was about 34 seconds; time to reach 25,000 feet was about two minutes.”

“On most missions, we would takeoff with about 40,000 pounds of fuel, which was half of the fuel-tank capacity. This was for safety because in the event of an engine loss immediately after liftoff at 210 knots, our single-engine minimum control speed would always be met, whereas if we were full, our minimum control speed would be closer to 330 knots.

After initial level-off I would hand-fly the airplane, checking its response, and testing its stability augmentation system in all three axes: yaw, pitch, and roll. I would also check all of the instruments for this first-look while flying. The RSO would start radio contact with the tanker aircraft by inserting a common frequency into a classified UHF radio. This special radio would provide us with secure voice, plus range and azimuth to the tanker. The RSO was busy checking out his sensors and navigational system. We would rendezvous with the tanker at approximately 320 knots indicated air speed (KIAS), with the SR-71 level at 1,000 feet below the tanker. I would maintain a 100 KIAS overtake until I was 1.5 miles from the lead tanker (we usually had 2 tankers in case one could not transfer fuel). After hookup and while receiving fuel, the tanker would accelerate as its gross weight was reduced and ours increased. Usually, the tanker’s maximum airspeed was 350 KIAS, but since the KC-135Q had special dispensation, we would often accelerate to 365 KIAS by the end of air refueling.

We would almost always refuel to full tanks (80,000 pounds of fuel) so that our gross weight would more than double during air refueling.  The SR-71 had a problem staying in position near the latter portion of the refueling: as our gross weight increased toward maximum, we would become power limited without afterburner assistance because by that time, we were operating “behind the power curve,” where more power is required either to slow or speed-up while maintaining  level flight.  I found the best technique for maintaining position was to notify the boom operator that I was going to light an afterburner (I never wanted to alarm the boom operator), then place the left throttle in the minimum afterburner position, wait 3 seconds, then smoothly retard the right throttle about 4 inches.  The SR-71 would hardly move relative to the tanker.

After receiving our full on-load of fuel, we would usually start to climb and accelerate to supersonic speeds immediately. Selecting maximum thrust (throttles in full afterburner), we would achieve .9 Mach while climbing to 35,000 feet, when I would slowly lower the nose to about -10 degrees of pitch to “punch through” the sound barrier, which was a region of high drag. After achieving supersonic speed at 450 knots, I would increase pitch to hold that speed. Once supersonic, we would monitor Knots Equivalent Airspeed (KEAS) as our primary instrument to determine overall dynamic pressure acting on the airplane. KEAS is a direct measurement of the amount of wind blast (dynamic pressure) the aircraft is experiencing. This is the air pressure which the aircraft needs to maintain flight (lift) and adequate controllability. During the climb/acceleration, there are numerous systems which must be controlled as the aircraft accelerates faster toward its cruising speed, which was usually Mach 3, or approximately 2,000 mph. Other cruise speeds used were Mach 2.4, 2.8, 3.1, 3.15, and 3.2.

After attaining our cruise Mach speed, we would initiate about a 200 foot-per-minute rate-of-climb to continually achieve the best altitude for maximum range through a cruise-climb schedule, as our fuel burned off and our gross weight decreased. We would often cross-check our gross weight, outside air temperature, Mach speed, center-of-gravity, and load factor (bank angle) with our checklist chart to verify and maintain the proper altitude for best fuel economy. Flying at best range speed (Mach 3.2) and maintaining optimum altitude continually throughout the flight, we could easily fly more than 2,000 miles and still have fuel to descend, fly subsonic for 25 minutes and land safely.

For all missions, we had to maintain our flight track as planned, and this was particularly important for operational missions where we sometimes had to fly within one-half mile of our planned track to satisfy our mission objectives. These restraints might include skirting the international border of a target country, or being in the correct position to obtain certain photographic targets. 

Flying supersonic over the United States, we were constrained by where our “sonic boom” would touch the ground and be heard, and to minimize citizen complaints, we would fly over relatively unpopulated areas in the western United States, or over the Pacific Ocean.

Every training sortie was flown to operational-mission specifications. The pilot was busy monitoring all of the myriad instruments in the cockpit relating to the aircraft performance, course maintenance, and temperatures in the mission bays where the reconnaissance equipment was carried. Aircraft pitch-control was sensitive and necessary to maintain, because at Mach 3, one degree of pitch change would yield 3,000 feet-per-minute rate-of-climb or descent.

We had checklists to accomplish at various points along the track and would conduct crew coordination for any unusual event, such as an aircraft malfunction or emergency situation.  In the “take area” or overflying “denied territory,” our attention (especially the RSO’s attention) would include sensor operation, HF radio transmissions from interested personnel who were monitoring our progress, and monitoring the defensive equipment, which included surface-to-air missile readiness, tracking ability, and electronic jamming, if a missile launch was detected.  The jamming equipment is still classified information, but it was so powerful that we were forbidden to operate it over the United States or friendly countries.

When the airborne mission was complete and we were flying back to our base, we would start the supersonic descent about 200 miles from destination.  The initial descent procedure was to bring both throttles to MIL power and wait for the Mach number to start deceasing.  Since Mach 3+ is a relatively low drag region for the SR-71, it would take several seconds for the Mach number to indicate a decrease.  As the speed slows, we would maintain a dynamic pressure equivalent of 350 KEAS and hold that parameter until subsonic.  Our initial pitch attitude starting the descent was about 11 degrees nose-up, but by the time we were approaching Mach 1.0 in the descent, our pitch attitude would be -15 degrees nose-down.  This dramatic change in pitch described our “reentry.”  Once subsonic, the SR-71 flew like most other high-performance aircraft with a heavy flight-control feel.

Landing the SR-71 was somewhat unique, at least in my experience flying other high-performance jet aircraft.  It had no speed brakes, no flaps, no leading-edge high-lift devices, no boundary-layer control, or any other auxiliary systems to augment the “clean” aircraft.  However, since it had a very large delta wing and a forward extension of the wing called the “chine,” which acted as an additional lift producer, the SR-71 had great “ground effect” which markedly decreased drag when the aircraft was approximately 50 feet above the ground.  For this reason, the pilot would typically retard the throttles to idle when the aircraft was nominally one-quarter of a mile from the overrun of the runway, no wind.  The landing was accomplished in separate steps: when the main landing gear touched the runway, I would pull the drag chute handle while the nose is still about 10 degrees in the air.  There would be no adverse pitch change (up or down) due to chute deployment, because the location of the drag chute attachment buckle was directly over the center-of-gravity.  The deceleration was approximately one-quarter g, and it felt good when the object was to stop the airplane.  Then gently lower the nose wheel to the runway and engage nose-wheel steering, then check brakes.  Normally the drag chute would be jettisoned on the runway, but this had to be accomplished no slower than 55 knots because otherwise, the buckle would drag over the fuselage, causing damage.  Actual stopping depended on the braking system.  After landing, the brakes were almost always fairly hot, requiring that gasoline-powered fans be placed around the tire-brake assembly for about 20 minutes.

On most operational missions, we would taxi into the hangar, and while going through the post-flight checks, the mission materials were downloaded by specialists using carts and high-speed screwdrivers.  They reminded me of a motorsport ‘pit-stop’ crew.  The film and other recorded items were processed as quickly as possible.”

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How good were its reconnaissance capabilities?

I was not part of that analysis; however, we were allowed to see the results of our missions: the resolution of the photographic cameras and the radar imagery. I am not a photo interpreter, but I knew what I was seeing with remarkable clarity, especially given the technical difficulties of producing useful imagery while flying 15 miles altitude at 2,000 mph and while maneuvering. They were crystal-clear.

Usually radar imagery is rather like reading code: to a trained interpreter, certain squiggles and shadows portray specific events.  With the new-at-the-time Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System (ASARS), which was developed for the SR-71, even I could interpret what was there.

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The first Blackbird variant, the A-12, flew reconnaissance missions for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1967 to 1968. The SR-71 flew reconnaissance for the US Air Force from 1968 to 1990, operating for the Strategic Air Command (SAC), 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (9SRW), and the 1st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron (1SRS). It was the most expensive squadron to operate per number of air crews; there were only 10 operational crews assigned to the SR-71 at any one time. It required massive amounts of support, both personnel and materiel. I conclude that yes, the reconnaissance capabilities were superb and well worth the expense. After the SR-71 was retired, several leaders, including General Norman Schwarzkopf during the first Gulf War, asked that the program be restarted to fill a gap in reconnaissance capability. The US Navy in particular did not want the SR-71 to cease operations because of its importance, given the Murmansk missions.”

Describe the Blackbird in one word? 


Did you use any nicknames for it? “The name ‘Habu’ was also used for the SR-71 aircraft, the crews who flew her, the maintenance personnel who kept her flying, and any number of other people who worked with or for the SR-71 program. This name came into fashion early in the Blackbird’s history and was started by the citizens of Okinawa who thought the SR-71 resembled a black, venomous snake nicknamed “Habu,” which is native to Okinawa. The crews thought it appropriate, so the name stuck.

A tradition started early in the SR-71 program, that the Habu patch was worn only by SR-71 aircrew members after they had completed their first operational mission.

The other most common nickname is Blackbird. Obvious reason.”

How did you feel after your final SR-71 flight?

“I felt absolutely terrible that I was leaving the SR-71 and would never fly it again. I had the best job in the Air Force and did not have to leave when I did (in November 1987), but I was 45 years old, a graduate of the US Air Force Test Pilot School, and wanted to pursue a civilian career as a test pilot. I thought that I would have to retire from the Air Force before I would be un-marketable because of age, as most aerospace companies want to hire experienced, but somewhat young test pilots. I accepted a job with the Northrop Corporation in the B-2 program, which was anticipating the B-2 first flight within the year. It was indeed a tough choice!”

What should I have asked you?

“Perhaps you should ask about the culture of the SR-71 cadre of highly motivated, professional people who all came together to make that magnificent aircraft the super-star that it was.  The talent and dedication that the maintenance crews exhibited in their everyday efforts, as they often worked in 12, 16, and on deployments, 24-hour shifts.  The men and women who were directly responsible for maintaining, supplying, planning, and innovating various aspects of the SR-71 program were truly outstanding.  We as pilots and RSOs knew that since we flew in the most dangerous and hostile environment of any aircraft, and we did it almost daily, our lives quite literally were saved and preserved by their professional pride, dedication, talent, and very hard work.  They all knew they were producing a most complicated aircraft ready to meet the challenges of sustained ultra-hot, supersonic flight in an atmosphere almost a vacuum, for the security of the United States, and also that of the greater “Free World.  Magnificent indeed!

And kudos also for the faithful tanker crews who were always there to refuel us when sometimes, they were our only salvation in a very low, critical fuel state.  It is instructive and significant that there was never an operational mission canceled for lack of tanker support.  

And no Blackbird ever ran out of fuel!”

Enjoyed this Blackbird interview? Preorder your copy of The Hush-Kit book of Warplanes today here. 



  1. brian

    Did I miss the part on becoming a airforce pilot after originally failing with poor eyesight? At what point & how did you get into test pilot school.

    • BC Thomas

      I shouldn’t have put that part in the narrative since it was irrelevant to the SR-71, and it wasn’t mentioned in the last version of my answers. My eyes were marginal and after 2 years of exercise and corrective lenses, I passed in 1966 and immediately went on active duty and attended USAF pilot training. I went to the USAF Test Pilot School in 1973.

  2. pconlin

    If North Korea (or anyone else not permitted) flies over US territory it is an act of war, if the US overflies then it is something wonderful. I guess we just aren’t supposed to care about this standard exceptionalism. No milo

    • BC Thomas

      This was during the “Cold War,” which of course was sometimes “hot,” and our National Command Authority deemed some overflights necessary for national security. We never overflew the Soviet Union or Communist China. I was honored and proud to fly each and every one of my operational reconnaissance flights.

      • mywordisme

        BC, thank you for your fascinating story and with no particular criticism of you personally, I’m one of the Aerospace Ph.D. engineers who professionally dealt with many of the aerodynamic issues you mention, and still I say it’s very easy to use the term “national security” when thinking emotionally in the throes of erroneous beliefs. Such thinking contains little fact-based reasoning. For instance, President Obama often said we were fighting in Afghanistan for “national security,” and of course most all the recent US wars were justified by “national security.” This is a fraudulent claim because true national security comes from a strong and healthy economy in a nation whose people aren’t at loggerheads with each other. Therein lies the real challenge to government, and we are falling flat on our faces on that issue. It’s a shame that the Military/Industrial/Banker/Government complex gets to define what “national security” is, and they can do that only because of the ignorance of the people who are kept ignorant by that very same bunch of sociopaths.

      • BC Thomas

        Reconnaissance is sorting out the difference between what potential enemies say, and what they do. Sometimes knowing such information is a matter of national security–those occasions exist. If you have a more suitable synonym for “national security,” I’ll start using it.

      • mywordisme

        Hi BC, thank you for your response. I think I’m referring to something much broader and deeper. Do you really believe all the mayhem, killing and human suffering we caused in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lybia, and a few other places can be honestly and reasonably justified as “national security”? That’s not my term. That’s the term the government has made up and uses with the charade that it’s adequate. I’m asking you to give us your honest opinion: have our government leaders been frank and honest to the US citizen? Do you suspect that the real reasons behind all that blood and treasure are something else, and that our risk to “national security” was basically a lie? I’m talking very plain and true here. Please be likewise, and thank you for doing so!

      • Debbie Stickel

        I really think you’re trying to back the wrong person into a corner.
        In my view, he doesn’t owe you any explanation.
        You might have issues with how this country pursued foreign policy, but that is not within the purview of these illustrious pilots and crew.
        When receiving orders, they didn’t have the luxury, or the time to question the validity.
        They are patriots who signed up to defend the country, and follow orders…..not work in the Security Council or UN.
        BC doesn’t owe you an explanation of his moral feelings about his time serving the country.
        Doc Stickel

      • mywordisme

        Debbie, I appreciate your views, but I think you’re not on topic. I’m asking BC to comment in his own personal capacity, and there’s nothing wrong in that. You say he doesn’t “owe me an explanation,” and I agree, though he’s perfectly free to tell me what he honestly thinks, not as an official spokesman for the government, but only as one human to another human.

        Concerning your comment that “When receiving orders, they didn’t have the luxury, or the time to question the validity,” it seems you’re not aware of the outcomes of the Nuremburg Trials, in which this issue was decided upon; i.e., to claim the defense, “simply carrying out orders” does not legally absolve people of committing crimes. Please review these issues then get back to us and please acknowledge your obvious errors. Patriots who simply “follow orders” cannot be excused from crimes against humanity. I understand that many Americans feel this way, but Americans are notoriously known to have no concern for the evils their government inflicts on innocent people. So your excuses do not rise to a morally defensible position, and I’m sure BT is aware of that.

    • Garrett

      In response to pconlin: the US, South Korea, and the UN are still at war with North Korea (UN Resolution 82). There has been a truce (honored to varying degrees of fidelity over the years), not an armistice. These facts of international law place overflights of North Korea in a different category than other sovereign countries.

  3. VespaJack

    In the color photo of the two crewmen [head to toe] on can noticed they are wearing “spurs” on their heels. This was a clete that just before ejection the crewman would tuck his feet into the base of his ejection seat that locked them in place. This would insure his lower limbs were properly aligned for the ejection sequence. I have read of F-104 pilots using the same system, and how bad-ass it was to walk into the ready room with your spurs jangling.

  4. Jim Bagge

    I admit I’m late to the party, but if you are still monitoring this I would like to know if you could comment on another Blackbird jock, Brian Shul, claim that he hit 3.5 Mach in an SR-71 evading a SAM over Libya in 1986. Using NASA’s Mach and speed of sound calculator, at 85,000 feet that gives a speed of 2324 mph.

    • BC Thomas

      The SR-71 could attain Mach 3.5, but the aircraft would be in an untested and prohibited area outside of its flight envelope, and serious damage to the aircraft might occur. The SR-71 was point-designed to cruise continuously at Mach 3.2 (Mach 3.3 in an emergency), which is quite an achievement, but it was not intended to have a lot of margin above that speed.

      • Jim Bagge

        Thank you very much for the reply. Yes, I know that the intended ‘max’ speed of the SR-71 is 3.3 Mach. Probably a dozen years ago I happened on a link to a website,
        SR-71 Flight Manual
        I clicked on the link and was taken to the cover page . I perused it and my eyes immediately went to Section V: Operating Limitations. Clicking on that I saw under Operating Limitations, 5-8, Flight Envelope Limits, Maximum Mach 5-8. Man, I don’t mind telling you that I was getting excited. Finally I thought I was going to learn the top speed of the SR-71.
        I clicked on Maximum Mach and was taken to page 5-8 and saw this:
        “Mach 3.2 is the design Mach number. Mach 3.17 is the maximum scheduled cruise speed recommended for normal operations. However, when authorized by the commander, speeds up to Mach 3.3 may be flown if the limit CIT of 427 degrees C is not exceeded.”
        To say the least this left me more than a little disappointed. I had expected something like Mach 4 top speed. For years I had been certain that Soviet and Chinese radars had tracked SR-71’s across the sky’s at at least 4 Mach. My balloon was in the process of being popped. But in the intervening years since discovering I have learned a lot and the truth about the astronomical physical limits facing Kelly Johnson and his team of engineers at the Skunk Works, and all of the Blackbirds, the original CIA A12, the YF12A-12A, and the SR-71, never achieved Mach 4 or anywhere near it. The Air Force was telling the truth all along, Mach 3.2+ was the fastest any of the Blackbirds ever flew.
        Getting back to the Flight Manual. Upon reading, “However, when authorized by the commander, speeds up to Mach 3.3 may be flown if the limit CIT of 427 degree C is not exceeded.”, a new variable was thrown into the mix. What was CIT and what did it have to do with the top speed of the SR-71? I looked up CIT in the flight manual and saw that it stood for, Compressor Inlet Temperature. Ah, now this got the thought processes going. CIT is the temperature of the air entering the the Pratt and Whitney J-58 engine. Skipping through a fairly long period of learning (on my own), quite evidently the SR-71 was not thrust limited. What actually set the limit for how fast an SR-71 could be flown – key words, “can be flown” – was the temperature of the ambient air through which the SR-71 was flying. Not the thrust of the engines, but the temperature of the air it was flying through. I don’t mean to give the impression that this all became immediately self evident, it took time and lots of reading about the SR-71.
        Getting kind of long winded, sorry. I have since also read copies of the Flight Manuals for both the CIA A-12 and the Air Force YF-12A interceptor which both have the identical same paragraph linking maximum Mach to CIT. I have also read where Lockheed genius Kelly Johnson himself said that how fast a Blackbird could go was determined by the temperature of the ambient air it was flying through. Johnson also said that each Blackbird pilot probably has his own maximum speed he has flown the plane. Before the claim of Mach 3.5 by Brian Shul the fastest speed I’d seen was CIA pilot Dennis Sullivan in an A-12 evading SAM’s over Hanoi – 2207 mph, about 3.3 Mach on the nose. Some people I have read commenting on Blackbird stories on the Internet say the plane was limited by structural failure due to high air friction temperatures weakening the Titanium airframe. Yes, there is a temperature at which the airframe will fail, but I think the engines will fail due to high CIT before that happens. The inlet air temperature to the Pratt and Whitney J-58 engines are what limit how fast any Blackbird may be flown. Am I right?
        I don’t know how old you are, but I am 74. I remember the first ‘illustration’ of a blackbird I ever saw, the centerfold of a Hot Rod magazine in I think March of 1965, and it was labeled, ‘A-11’ for LBJ mistakenly referring to it as an A-11 instead of what it really was, a CIA A-12. It was the most awesome airplane I’d ever seen. A year and two months later I enlisted in the USAF, May 5 1966. As luck would have it, after tech school I was stationed at George AFB in the Mojave Desert, California, working on F-4 Phantoms, one helluva a beautiful plane. 40 miles to the west of George was Edwards AFB. I went to Edwards open house in October 1967 and saw my first Blackbird on the flight line. I don’t remember what it was, but it probably was an Air Force YF-12A. I talked to a pilot, and trying to seem intelligent, I asked him what the chines were for. He answered my question but my high school education was no match for his explanation. His answer went right over my head.
        This is getting WAY too long.
        Thanks for replying to me. You are the first pilot of a Blackbird I have ever communicated with. I could ask you a gazillion questions, but I will ask just one more. First laying some ground work. The density of air and consequently air pressure decreases with increasing altitude. This affects two parameters of high speed, high altitude flight of the SR-71. As air density decreases, the thrust generated by the turbojet engines decreases because there are fewer oxygen atoms in the air to combust. An SR-71 Pratt and Whitney J-58 produces maximum thrust at maximum atmospheric pressure – sea level – of 34,000 pounds. But also, decreasing air molecules means there is less drag on the aircraft, so it takes less thrust to maintain a given air speed. So as any jet powered aircraft flies higher its engine(s) produce less thrust, but drag decreases also. In all my searching on the Internet I have never been able to learn what the actual thrust generated by a J-58 engine at 80,000 feet is. I found a Lockheed document online by Lockheed Skunk Works engineer Ben Rich, who was in charge of designing the inlets on all Blackbirds starting with the A-12, and he said that at 3.2 Mach, 54% of the total thrust powering the aircraft is generated from pressure recovery in the inlet, 17% from the J-58 turbojet engine, and 29% from the ejector.

        Click to access SR-71InletDesign.pdf

        My question is, can you tell me what the combined thrust from the inlet, turbojet, and ejector or just the turbojet alone is at 80,000 feet? The thrust from the turbojet by itself is only a fraction of the thrust of 34,000 pounds at sea level. I’ve searched the Internet for the total thrust powering the SR-71 at Mach 3 and 80,000 feet and have never seen a figure. Do you know what it is?
        So again, thanks for the reply to my original question. Oh, and btw, after leaving the Air Force I got a degree in Electrical Engineering and I now have the necessary science background so that I could have understood the pilot at Edwards 53 years ago.

        Sent from my iPad

      • BC Thomas

        I do not know what the drag, in pounds, of the SR-71 was at Mach 3+, but the thrust available was much higher than the thrust required. That is, there was ample throttle travel available at all cruise speeds to go faster. I’ve heard unsubstantiated reports that Mach 3.4 was attained during initial testing, and that may have been the reason to limit top speed at Mach 3.3, because if faster, the temperature entering the compressor was greater than the temperature recommended by Pratt and Whitney, the manufacturer of the J-58 engines, and it’s not smart to defy the limits of the engines. The airframe of the SR-71 also had temperature limits for structural integrity, and in addition, electrical components would probably overheat and fail with higher cruise speeds and greater temperatures.

        The SR-71 was point-designed for cruise at Mach 3.2, and did it well, but it was not suited for flight above Mach 3.3.

      • Jim Bagge

        Again, thank you very much for the reply. Like I say, I’ve never communicated with an SR-71 pilot before. I never went to the air shows they apparently often appeared in, and I really have no explanation why. Because I do remember reading in the news about an SR-71 setting a record flying from London to Los Angeles in I think the 1970’s in three hours forty eight minutes, slowing down to inflight refuel twice (obviously not a ground takeoff and ground landing), so I did know they were appearing at air shows.
        I am sure excess throttle was available at even 3+ Mach. Was there a ‘kick in the pants’ if you firewalled it and were going 3+ Mach?
        To put aircraft internal temperatures, within the fuselage, while flying at 3+ Mach into perspective, just think about this: the crews body temperature, 98.6 F, was the coolest thing on the plane. The avionics had cooling systems to keep them from failing. I worked in the semiconductor industry and most transistors and IC’s fail at temperatures well below 300 degrees F.
        Like I said, I have a ton of questions and I expect that you’re getting pretty tired about now, but a few more if you can. Do you remember what the CIP, Compressor Inlet Pressure, was when flying at 3.2 Mach? Did you ever see a CIT, Compressor Inlet Temperature, in the vicinity of 427 degrees C? If you did were you close to 3.3 Mach?
        Did you ever experience an inlet unstart? They were apparently not uncommon on CIA A-12’s, and early SR-71’s, but I’ve read that modifications were made to the inlets and spike control systems that pretty much eliminated inlet unstarts. I’ve read that they can be quite violent, slamming the crews heads against the sides of the cockpit. Care to comment?
        You replied to Thadl T. with the turn diameters of 25, 30 and 45 degree bank angles, a 45 degree bank cuts the diameter about in half. What was the ‘g’ force at 3.2 Mach and 45 degrees bank angle? Until you got the inlet restarted did the asymmetric thrust make the plane a handful to control?
        Thanks again.

        Jim Bagge

  5. Mark Willis

    Thank you for the information and your memories. I served enlisted at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, from 1/1077 to 9/1980. There were no SR-71s assigned even tho we were SAC. One Blackbird did put in for repairs once. When she was fixed and scheduled to leave, the Base Commander and Commanders of 28th BMW and 44th SMW (my unit, WHS) gave us a “stand-down” and instructed all interested troops to line the flight line fence to watch her take off. There were 3.000 or so troops watching. She took off low and slow, then did a huge circle around that big blue Dakota sky. We were scratching our heads and saying “Gee, that wasn’t all that spectacular!” Then the pilot returned to the flight line as if to land, got about four feet or so off the ground, and right in front of us kicked the nose up to about 45 degrees and just blasted the throttle! Before we could blink she basically disappeared in front of our eyes, and was just a black dot in the sky. We were then duly impressed.

    • BC Thomas

      Thank you for that description and as it turns out, I was the pilot who flew the SR-71 to Ellsworth AFB on July 6, 1978 and flew out on July 8, 1978. I remember there were a lot of people to see us takeoff, but I had no idea it was 3,000 and that the Commanders had offered to let everyone see the departure. That’s a great story and I am glad to have had the opportunity to demonstrate the awesome power and climb performance of the SR-71 to you and your cohorts.

  6. Jim J.

    I knew a retired SR-71 pilot. Bill’s flying skills were only one of his talents.

    The saying goes “There are old pilots and bold pilots but no old, bold pilots.” Those flying the SR-71 seem to be a few that defy that phase.

    Thanks for protecting us and our Country.

  7. “DirtyDog”

    Though the ship was built for speed at higher altitudes was there ever any experience with turbulence going through lower altitudes? The Lockheed developed aircraft lift profile took thousands of hours to optimize, and as stated the ground affect is unlike any other plane. Often wondered what that would be like in some chop. I imagine the closest feel would be a Fishbed which requires constant attention.

  8. Smokeylovesfire

    A very good story! I have always wondered just how hot it got in the cockpit considering the windshield was over 600 degrees. I’ve also wondered how the engines power compares to the new GE engines of the passenger jets of today. I thought I read where one of the new passenger jet engines of today make more thrust that both SR engines combined. A very informative story! Thx again!

  9. Mark Ryalls

    Very interesting article. I have always been fascinated by this aircraft and the facts about it. I have built a model of it that I bought at the Smithsonean store in Washington at the Air and Space museum. Kelly Johnson was an absolute genius, (and his staff of engineers). To be able to anticipate the technological challenges and find answers was amazing. Thanks for the added information you have provided to my “catalog”.

  10. Engineman

    The J-58 engine was my initial introduction engine assembly at the Pratt & Whitney Plant in Florida, I worked engine overhaul/production/testing from 1967 thru 1973. At flying peak we were overhauling up to 12 J-58’s a month. It was
    a masterpiece for it’s task, the first semi-ram turbo jet production engine. Late ’60’s was full of new ideas, we were working
    the nuclear engine, the first hydrogen rocket engine, the RL-10…still in use today. Exciting time in aviation.

  11. Arthur D. Broyles

    Some of the dates concerning the 1st SRS at Beale are in error. I was assigned to Beale in 1965 as a Medic, assigned to the SR71 program. We had A-12 and Sr-71’s testing the runways as early as Dec. 1965. We received the first SR-71 in Jan. or Feb 1966. A lot of training flights were made over Cuba in ’66. I have some stories that I wish I could relate, but , I don’t know if they are still classified. I was in the debriefings in the basement after the flights and heard a lot of unusual facts about the SAMS Cuba tried to hit the ’71 with.

  12. Thadl T.

    In flying the SR71, how much space is needed for a SR71 to make a right or left turn in various situations? I live in Northern Utah, and quite a while back, our Hill AFB Museum acquired an SR71C Blackbird from Beale AFB. And it sits there awesomely in the HILL AFB museum. Again a very long time ago, an SR71 Blackbird hobbled in on one engine from the north, and headed into HAFB for repairs. So what caused that engine to break down, and where did it start its hobbled glide flight into HAFB? From what I remember, it made itself known again when it came time to take off and leave Hill AFB. And last but not least, were you and/or other SR71 pilots, granted special privileges of pushing the SR71’s envelope to see how fast you could push it ( f that make sense). Overall, the SR71 Blackbird was quite a plane, and one plane to look up to… Thanks again for your service…

    • BC Thomas

      At each Mach speed, I will give you 3 numbers, which are the diameters (in nautical miles) of the circles for 25 degrees of bank, 30 degrees, and 45 degrees, respectfully: Mach 3: 190, 150, 170; Mach 3.2: 205, 170, 100.

  13. Debbie Stickel

    Fascinating article. Not that I remotely possess the skills( or guts) necessary, but reading the piece truly brought you into the cockpit.
    Well done, and thank you for your service and absolute professionalism, Sir.
    Hard to say where we would be without you and your peers displaying the ” right stuff”.
    Just one question, if you will.
    I volunteer at the Asheville, NC VA Hospital.
    In residence there, and one of our cherished Vets, is one Col. James Mulligan.
    I’ve understood, during our chats, that he had some attachment to the development of the aircraft. Just curious as to whether you two have crossed paths?
    He is 98 years young, and served (pilot) during WW2, Korea, and Vietnam.
    Truly one of the Greatest Generation.
    Thank you
    Doc Stickel

    • BC Thomas

      I do not know Colonel James Mulligan, but he probably was part of the efforts to design, build, and test the Blackbirds. There were hundreds of people dedicated to that project in Washington DC, the field offices, and at Edwards AFB. And thank you, Colonel Mulligan, for your service to your Country!

  14. Mike Bourcier

    Great article BC, thanks for sharing. I was a maintainer in the 9th Wing from 76 to 85 which included an assignment to Det 1 from 82 to 85. Great assignment, great mission, and great people. Still close to many of them. Honor to have served with you!

    • BC Thomas

      And an honor for me to have such wonderful maintenance people associated with our SR-71. You did an outstanding job!

  15. D. Bailey

    My mother and I are big SR-71 fans. My girlfriend and I have seen the SR-71 at the Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, VA. If I could ask, how smooth was the plane at 80,000+ ft and what were the views of the Earth at that height?

    • BC Thomas

      There was virtually no wind at altitudes above 70,000 feet so the flight was very smooth. During the day, the earth would be bright, but the sky was black. The edge of the horizon was about 350 miles away, and the curve of the earth was barely visible. Lighting at night was very dramatic: bright stars and light on the ground look the same. At sunset or sunrise, the sun’s rays would cause the shadow of the earth to project into space and could be plainly seen. All of that was spectacular!

  16. Ben

    Total civilian here, not a pilot. Thank you for your dedication and service. I’ve been fascinated by the SR71 since learning about it at Wright-Patterson many years ago.
    Recently I read an account of a SR71 pilot anecdotally requesting airspace at 45,000 n the western US, aledgedley the controller said “it’s open if you can get up there” to which he responded “coming down from 65(,000)”. Gave me chills – hope there was truth to that.

  17. Rick Buschelman

    I was a KC-135 navigator at Beale 1980 – 1985, getting us to the point in the air to pump gas to the SR-71 all over the planet. Thank you for giving kudos to the tanker crews in support of this mission. Those were the glory days indeed!!!!

    • BC Thomas

      I’m sure you have refueled me many times. Thank you for your service. My first assignment out of pilot training was a KC-135 copilot and I enjoyed it very much.

  18. PJ Pisczak

    Well reasoned answers to sometimes challenging questions. Tx for protecting us, your dedication to duty is very much appreciated.

  19. WillowRun 6-3

    An information set to read and reread at least a few more times. Though not a pilot, working now (in my late 60s) to add an LL.M. degree in Air and Space Law to my legal qualifications and credentials. And though success is difficult to achieve, constantly trying to impress on attorneys – and law professors – of a great many stripes that some understanding of how aircraft and spacecraft actually operate, and how they are operated, is a prerequisite for proper understanding and application of the law.
    No less, subscription to certain of the Cold War doctrines and articles of faith by which U.S. citizens largely were convinced continues to be a primary factor in proper understanding and application of the law. It’s not always appreciated as a point of view, but contents of the interview restore, let’s call it vitality to the attitude required for proper advocacy.
    Thank you for taking the time to reach so many fascinating details and informational items.

  20. dick marin

    In 1962 I was a crew chief stationed at a SAGE site in Eastern Oregon. Going on duty one night we were told that Radar might pick a “fast” “high altitude” target and we were to ignore it. Well one night the Radar would not let us, and the “butt chewing” I got from a Colonel from the Spokane ADC, well I’m happy to hear that it was probably an AR-12 test flight. Thanks for your story, a great read.

  21. charliebravo68

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article! I was a flight student WAY back when a SR-71 crew stopped by my flight school and left a beautiful drawing type picture of this magnificent bird (I tried to attach but was denied). It is signed by Tom McCleary and Blair Vardamar (no sure about the RO’s name), from the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, 1st SRS Beale AFB. I have treasured that rendering from the day it was handed to me.

    I was fortunate indeed to see her fly at the Reno Air Races not long before that. She did a low pass, in all her glory, for the spectators to see! My only regret was that she didn’t go supersonic when she left (well, and that I didn’t get to fly her).

    Thank you for your story. It was a great read. I’ve always been fascinated by the SR-71, she truly is magnificent!

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  25. Truman HW

    What an outstanding thread to read through.
    I’ve just read 2 hours of engineers debating back and forth whether the J58 was a Ram jet, partial ram jet, hybrid, etc.
    I was sure they were going to breakout the protractors at dawn for a deuel.

    In the end, I feel convinced as physics data ratifies the ‘minority report’ engineer’s posit, & my mind is biased to his claims:

    “The J58 is NOT even a partial ramjet.”
    Ramjets product nominal thrust <100 knots
    Insignificant thrust ≤ 0.5 mach.
    Aren't efficient until supersonic, between mach 2 – 3.

    The spike's purpose is both decelerating the air & controlling the shockwave's normal.
    Air ducting's purpose is cooling the engine and avoiding stalls / damage to the compressor blades.

    And again: The spike's job is to slow the air entering the engine.
    Doors and ducts control air going around the engine — and recombining at the nozzle.
    Only a fraction of spike's decelerated air is available to recombine with the mechanically accelerated air.

    For which, the intent of doing so is listed as, "avoiding compressor stall & cooling the engine."

    OBVIOUSLY, the extra O2 clearly increases thrust, but a ramjet effect requires Mach 2-3 airflow, which is deliberately absent.

    Given the EGT (exhaust temperatures) it sounds like recombining approaches the stoichiometric limit of fuel's maxim.

    Maybe the J58s performance data is still partially classified (or I lack the science BG to get it) … but it's specs are:
    J58 Thrust (dry / wet) in lb-ft: 18,000 (military) and 25,500 (afterburning).

    SR-71 Specifications (copied from wikipedia):

    Empty / Gross / Max weight: 67,500 lb / 152,000 lb / 172,000 lb (12,219 gallons)

    Powerplant: Military Thrust Afterburner
    2 × P&W JT11D-20J (J58): 25,000 lb-ft / 32,500 lb-ft -or- 50,000 / 65,000 (both)
    2 × P&W JT11D-20K (J58): 25,000 lb-ft / 34,000 lb-ft -or- 50,000 / 68,000 (both)

    J variant: Guide Vanes = Fixed
    K variant: Guide Vanes = 2-positions

    Key points: The SR-71s max thrust (listed) is 68,000 (AB) & weighs 67,500 lb, EMPTY.

    An F-22 with 2,700 gallons, pilot, etc STILL weigh less than an EMPTY SR-71 …

    Empty / Gross MTO, weights: 43,340 / 64,840 / 83,500 lb (Fuel: 18,000 lb)

    2 × P&W F119-PW-100 augmented Turbofans: 26,000 lbf each (dry) / 35,000 lbf each (wet).

    I'm thinking the numbers for the SR-71 are still omitting some "details" … as in — are under-reporting …

    And maybe between 65,000 lb-ft each … maybe not at 200 n-mph … but over 1,500 ..?
    maybe the additional air that's cooled the engine and providing extra O2 hits the stoichiometric maxim … ??

    Otherwise?? Yes, reduced air, but enough to get it that hot?? Comes with an inverse-square-law.

    We KNOW how heavy it was once loaded with fuel and cameras, etc.
    And we know it doesn't struggle to accelerate at sea level like a Hornet does…

    So again:
    – NOT A RAMJET … but, still using the slowed O2 for all the efficiency it can get …
    – SR-71s max thrust (listed) is 68,000 (AB) & weighs 67,500 lb, EMPTY, 152,000 'Gross' and 172,000 MTOW.

    You really think the SR-71, the fastest jet EVER had a 1.02:1 thrust-to-weight ratio ONLY when empty??
    And a 0.5-to-1 ratio when fueled, if not a 0.3:1 at it's MTOW..? Sorry, I call bullshit (aka, STILL CLASSIFIED).

  26. Don Broyles

    ’65/’66 the 71’s flying out of Beale on ” training ” missions would over fly Cuba. The purpose was to test the abilities of the Russian missiles to track and launch. The ’71’s would turn on their ID’s and monitor the time it took for them to detect, lock on, and launch. This info save a lot of pilots in Vietnam. It also caused the Cubans and Russians to waste resources.

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