This story is thanks to the sharp eyes and recommendations of FASF member, and former USAF jet pilot and Airline driver, Virg Hemphill. Thanks Virg!
In April 1986, following an attack on American
soldiers in a Berlin disco, President Reagan
ordered the bombing of Muammar Qaddafi’s
terrorist camps in Libya .
My duty was to fly over Libya , and take
photographs recording the damage our F-111’s
Qaddafi had established a ‘line of death,’
a territorial marking across the Gulf of Sidra ,
swearing to shoot down any intruder, that crossed
On the morning of April 15, I rocketed past the line at 2,125 mph.
I was piloting the SR-71 spy plane, the world’s
fastest jet, accompanied by a Marine Major (Walt),
the aircraft’s reconnaissance systems officer (RSO).
We had crossed into Libya , and were approaching
our final turn over the bleak desert landscape, when
Walt informed me, that he was receiving missile
I quickly increased our speed, calculating the time
it would take for the weapons, most likely SA-2 and SA-4
surface-to-air missiles, capable of Mach 5 – to reach
our altitude. I estimated that we could beat the rocket-powered
missiles to the turn, and stayed our course, betting
our lives on the plane’s performance.
After several agonizingly long seconds, we made
the turn and blasted toward the Mediterranean ….
‘You might want to pull it back,’ Walt suggested.
It was then that I noticed I still had the throttles
The plane was flying a mile every 1.6 seconds, well
above our Mach 3.2 limit.
It was the fastest we would ever fly.
I pulled the throttles to idle, just south of Sicily ,
but we still overran the refuelling tanker, awaiting us
over Gibraltar …
Scores of significant aircraft have been produced,
in the 100 years of flight, following the achievements
of the Wright brothers, which we celebrate in
Aircraft such as the Boeing 707, the F-86 Sabre Jet,
and the P-51 Mustang, are among the important machines,
that have flown our skies.
But the SR-71, also known as the Blackbird, stands alone
as a significant contributor to Cold War victory, and as the
fastest plane ever, and only 93 Air Force pilots, ever steered
the ‘sled,’ as we called our aircraft.
The SR-71, was the brainchild of Kelly Johnson,
the famed Lockheed designer, who created the
P-38, the F-104 Starfighter, and the U-2.
After the Soviets shot down Gary Powers U-2 in 1960,
Johnson began to develop an aircraft, that would
fly three miles higher, and five times faster, than
the spy plane, and still be capable of photographing
your license plate.
However, flying at 2,000 mph would create intense heat
on the aircraft’s skin.
Lockheed engineers used a titanium alloy, to construct
more than 90 percent of the SR-71, creating special tools,
and manufacturing procedures to hand-build each of the
40 planes… (Wow ! ! ! 40 planes???? I thought only 7.)
Special heat-resistant fuel, oil, and hydraulic fluids, that
would function at 85,000 feet, and higher, also had to be
In 1962, the first Blackbird successfully flew, and
in 1966, the same year I graduated from high school,
the Air Force began flying operational SR-71 missions.
I came to the program in 1983, with a sterling record
and a recommendation from my commander,
completing the weeklong interview, and meeting
Walt, my partner for the next four years.
He would ride four feet behind me, working all the
cameras, radios, and electronic jamming equipment.
I joked, that if we were ever captured, he was the spy,
and I was just the driver.
He told me to keep the pointy end forward.
We trained for a year, flying out of Beale AFB in
California, Kadena Airbase in Okinawa , and RAF
Mildenhall in England …
On a typical training mission, we would take off near
Sacramento, refuel over Nevada, accelerate into Montana,
obtain a high Mach speed over Colorado , turn right over
New Mexico, speed across the Los Angeles Basin, run up
the West Coast, turn right at Seattle , then return to Beale.
Total flight time: Two Hours and Forty Minutes.
One day, high above Arizona , we were monitoring
the radio traffic of all the mortal airplanes below us.
First, a Cessna pilot asked the air traffic controllers
to check his ground speed. ‘Ninety knots,’ ATC replied.
A Bonanza soon made the same request.
‘One-twenty on the ground,’ was the reply.
To our surprise, a navy F-18 came over the radio, with a
ground speed check.
I knew exactly what he was doing.
Of course, he had a ground speed indicator in his cockpit,
but he wanted to let all the bug-smashers in the valley,
know what real speed was, ‘Dusty 52, we show you at 620
on the ground,’ ATC responded.
The situation was too ripe.
I heard the click of Walt’s mike button in the rear seat.
In his most innocent voice, Walt startled the controller
by asking for a ground speed check from 81,000 feet,
clearly above controlled airspace.
In a cool, professional voice, the controller replied,
‘Aspen 20, I show you at 1,982 knots on the ground.’
We did not hear another transmission on that
frequency, all the way to the coast.
The Blackbird always showed us something new,
each aircraft possessing its own unique personality.
In time, we realized we were flying a national treasure.
When we taxied out of our revetments for take-off,
people took notice.
Traffic congregated near the airfield fences, because
everyone wanted to see, and hear the mighty SR-71.
You could not be a part of this program, and not come
to love the airplane.
Slowly, she revealed her secrets to us, as we earned
One moonless night, while flying a routine training
mission over the Pacific, I wondered what the sky
would look like from 84,000 feet, if the cockpit lighting
While heading home on a straight course, I slowly turned
down all of the lighting, reducing the glare and revealing
the night sky.
Within seconds, I turned the lights back up, fearful that the
jet would know, and somehow punish me.
But my desire to see the sky, overruled my caution,
I dimmed the lighting again.
To my amazement, I saw a bright light outside
As my eyes adjusted to the view, I realized that the
brilliance was the broad expanse of the Milky Way,
now a gleaming stripe across the sky.
Where dark spaces in the sky, had usually existed,
there were now dense clusters, of sparkling stars.
Shooting Stars, flashed across the canvas every
It was like a fireworks display with no sound.
I knew I had to get my eyes back on the instruments,
and reluctantly, I brought my attention back inside.
To my surprise, with the cockpit lighting still off,
I could see every gauge, lit by starlight.
In the plane’s mirrors, I could see the eerie shine of
my gold spacesuit, incandescently illuminated, in a
I stole one last glance out the window.
Despite our speed, we seemed still before the
heavens, humbled in the radiance of a much greater
For those few moments, I felt a part of something far
more significant, than anything we were doing in the plane.
The sharp sound of Walt’s voice on the radio, brought me
back to the tasks at hand, as I prepared for our descent.
San Diego Aerospace Museum
The SR-71 was an expensive aircraft to operate.
The most significant cost was tanker support, and in 1990, confronted with budget cutbacks, the Air
Force retired the SR-71.
The SR-71 served six presidents, protecting America
for a quarter of a century.
Unbeknown to most of the country, the plane flew
over North Vietnam , Red China , North Korea , the
Middle East, South Africa , Cuba , Nicaragua , Iran , Libya ,
and the Falkland Islands .
On a weekly basis, the SR-71, kept watch over every
Soviet Nuclear Submarine, Mobile Missile Site,
and all of their troop movements.
It was a key factor in winning the Cold War.
I am proud to say, I flew about 500 hours in this
aircraft. I knew her well.
She gave way to no plane, proudly dragging her
Sonic Boom through enemy backyards, with great impunity.
She defeated every missile, outran every MIG, and always
brought us home.
In the first 100 years of manned flight, no aircraft was more remarkable.
The Blackbird had outrun nearly 4,000 missiles, not once taking a scratch from enemy fire.
On her final flight, the Blackbird, destined for
the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum ,
sped from Los Angeles to Washington
in 64 Minutes, averaging 2,145 mph, and
setting four speed records.