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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Speed Is Life

Never underestimate the importance of an instrument cross-check

As a former SR-71 pilot, and a professional keynote speaker, the question I’m most often asked is “How fast would that SR-71 fly?” I can be assured of hearing that question several times at any event I attend. It’s an interesting question, given the aircraft’s proclivity for speed, but there really isn’t one number to give, as the jet would always give you a little more speed if you wanted it to. It was common to see 35 miles a minute. Because we flew a programmed Mach number on most missions, and never wanted to harm the plane in any way, we never let it run out to any limits of temperature or speed. Thus, each SR-71 pilot had his own individual “high” speed that he saw at some point on some mission. I saw mine over Libya when Khadafy fired two missiles my way, and max power was in order. Let’s just say that the plane truly loved speed and effortlessly took us to Mach numbers we hadn’t previously seen.

So it was with great surprise, when at the end of one of my presentations, someone asked, “What was the slowest you ever flew in the Blackbird?” This was a first. After giving it some thought, I was reminded of a story that I had never shared before, and relayed the following.

I was flying the SR-71 out of RAF Mildenhall, England, with my back-seater, Walt Watson; we were returning from a mission over Europe and the Iron Curtain when we received a radio transmission from home base. As we scooted across Denmark in three minutes, we learned that a small RAF base in the English countryside had requested an SR-71 flypast. The air cadet commander there was a former Blackbird pilot, and thought it would be a motivating moment for the young lads to see the mighty SR-71 perform a low approach. No problem, we were happy to do it. After a quick aerial refueling over the North Sea, we proceeded to find the small airfield.

Walter had a myriad of sophisticated navigation equipment in the back seat, and began to vector me toward the field. Descending to subsonic speeds, we found ourselves over a densely wooded area in a slight haze. Like most former WWII British airfields, the one we were looking for had a small tower and little surrounding infrastructure. Walter told me we were close and that I should be able to see the field, but I saw nothing. Nothing but trees as far as I could see in the haze. We got a little lower, and I pulled the throttles back from the 325 knots we were at. With the gear up, anything under 275 was just uncomfortable. Walt said we were practically over the field—yet, there was nothing in my windscreen. I banked the jet and started a gentle circling maneuver in hopes of picking up anything that looked like a field.

1 Comment

  1. I was stationed at Beale AFB, home of both the SR-71 and the U-2, for eleven years as a U-2 mission planner. I had the pleasure of knowing both Brian Shul and Walt Watson, as well as most of the other SR-71 and U-2 crew members. Truly, that is a fraternity of aviators unlike any other. Brian Shul stood out as a heroic guy who survived an F-4 "crash and burn" in Vietnam to not only walk again, but to fly the world's hottest airplane in hot spots around the world. Brian is well known here in the Northern California area, and I last saw him at the California Capital Air Show at Mather Airfield in the Sacramento suburbs a year ago, selling his books and photography. Thanks for passing on his "low pass" story- that was a new one on me, but very believable.

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