Picture-Perfect SR-71

A Blackbird pilot and photographer describes the day he took his favorite picture.

Shull sled image.jpg

From 1983 to 1989, I got to fly the world’s most extraordinary airplane. At about the same time, I started taking every picture of it I could. Photographing the SR-71 was a passion for me. Whatever photographic experience or knowledge I lacked at that stage of my photographic career was more than made up for with my enthusiasm for the airplane.

I am often asked which of my photographs of the SR-71 is my favorite. It is an easy question to answer.  To me, one photo captured the essence of all that was mysterious and powerful about the Blackbird, affectionately known as the “Sled.”

While hitching a ride on a KC-135 tanker aircraft one day in 1985, I was able to capture a shot of the SR-71 just prior to its refueling. Emerging from a squall line over the North Sea, the Sled dripped wet with leaking fuel and rain as it moved cautiously up to the pre-contact position. Using slow Kodachrome slide film at the time, I didn’t have enough good light to capture the image in focus, as we bounced around in the turbulent skies on the edge of that storm. We moved in and out of wispy clouds, and I was frustrated because I could see a magnificent picture happening before me, with insufficient light to do it justice. 

Like a wish granted, the filtered rays of a partially hidden sun momentarily illuminated the Sled’s wet metal and produced a satin-finished hue to the plane that I had never witnessed before, nor ever would again. The dancing light lasted but moments, and I was able to take 3 shots, cranking my Nikon F3 as fast as possible, desperately trying to focus precisely. 

I spent nearly 8 hours on the tanker on my day off and, because of the weather, was able to take only 3 pictures.  I was disappointed to say the least—until I viewed my few images on a light table weeks later, and saw one, focused shot, that captured the plane from tip to tail, wrapped in a surreal sky of swirling weather and stormy hues. It was truly one of those magical moments that photographers live for. Over the years, my camera skills and equipment improved, but I never captured another shot of the SR-71 more seductive to my eye, and that’s why it became the cover shot for the book Sled Driver, one of the most popular books on Amazon.com in the category of Air Sports and Recreation.

Many years after the shot was taken, many people in the digital era of photography were fairly certain that the picture was enhanced in Photoshop or with some digital software to give it that ethereal quality.  I have always enjoyed telling them that in 1985 we didn’t have such things, and it was a simple original Kodachrome slide, unretouched in any way.  People have asked why I didn’t do a vertical composition. They have never stretched out on a boom operator’s pad, leaned over to frame the shot and tried to focus manually while bouncing around in turbulent weather. I could barely frame the picture horizontally well enough to focus properly. A lucky shot? You bet. A good example of “f8 and be there.” With the multiplication of viewers made possible by the Internet, the picture has now become iconic. I have always felt very privileged to have had the opportunity to capture this image, of this jet, in this way. 

It was the first time I had ever tried to photograph the SR-71 in flight.

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