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!

SR-71 Blackbird


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

had inflicted.

Qaddafi had established a ‘line of death,’

a territorial marking across the Gulf of Sidra ,

swearing to shoot down any intruder, that crossed

the boundary.

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

launch signals.

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

full forward.

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

her trust.

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

were dark.

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

my window.

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

few seconds.

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

celestial glow.

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.

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