The SR-71 Was Close to Perfect

A member of the Blackbirds’ ground crew looks back on the airplane’s flight-test beginnings.

Head-on view from slightly above the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, beautifully lit from the darkness of its storage building at the National Air and Space Museum, September 21, 2000. Eric Long / NASM

The SR-71 was close to perfect. After a 480-mile flight from Beale Air Force Base in California, the midnight-black airplane swooped down to about 300 feet above Burbank Tower, less than 30 seconds after its scheduled arrival time of 12 noon. It made an easy half-roll, then completed two more passes. The parking garage roof where I stood reverberated with cheers, but as the Blackbird came in for its final pass, a hundred feet off the runway, and then pulled up just beyond the tower, the crowd fell silent.

It was December 1989, and this flyby, a gift to Lockheed employees from Ben Rich, head of Advanced Development Projects (the Skunk Works), marked the beginning of the end of the SR-71. After much debate in Congress, the Blackbirds were about to be retired. The YF-12A, the earlier, single-seat version of the SR-71, first flew in August 1963 and the Blackbird in December 1964. It was still unsurpassed when it was retired in 1990, 24 years after it officially entered service.

As I watched the SR-71 that December day, I thought back to the airplane’s flight-test beginnings in the early 1960s. I thought of Ben Rich, Ray Passon, Keith Beswick, and so many others whose lives were forever touched by this aircraft. I too was part of the Blackbird team, setting up housing, transportation, and communications—special measures due to the secrecy necessary. And above all of us was designer Kelly Johnson, who had a gift for sharing his ability to innovate and his drive to succeed. The unity of commitment we felt under leadership from Larry Bohanan in engineering and Dorsey Kammerer in production reached new intensity whenever Kelly arrived in the field. Sometimes he would good-naturedly arm-wrestle with people working there. His team members were hand-picked and fiercely loyal to him. He once offered $50 to anybody who could find an easy job to do. He got no takers.

When it came to their specialties, the people working on the Blackbird were the best in the company, perhaps in the country or even the world. The last word in reconnaissance airplanes, the SR-71 was capable of flying faster than Mach 3 and above 85,000 feet. In fact, the SR-71 flew so fast that even in the cold of those rarefied heights, the friction of the air heated its titanium skin to 550 degrees Fahrenheit.

The months leading up to the SR-71’s flight testing were made up of interminable hours spent in the eye of a technology hurricane. We worked without fanfare but with a shared sense of purpose, and always a sense of the importance of our work. Because of the tight security requirements, we had to keep silent about what we were doing, even with our families. In those years we saw things that are still classified.

We worked at a Lockheed facility surrounded by the desert of California’s Antelope Valley. Though usually serene, the desert could be besieged by sudden storms, with winds churning up clouds of brown sand that darkened the sky. Sometimes during a hot summer night the hangar was invaded by stag beetles, well-armored black insects with sharp jaws. Most nights they moved aimlessly in meandering circles, at other times resolutely, leaving smaller insects’ body parts in their wake. Like the SR-71s, the beetles were the rulers of their domain.

At night the Blackbirds always looked sinister, even when in repose in the hangars, their access doors open, plumbing exposed, sharp-edged rudders turned. For effective control at Mach 3, the entire fin—not just a trailing edge panel—pivoted around a central shaft. In the hangar, these were often left at odd angles, lending an element of jauntiness, like a hat cocked to one side.

On the day the Blackbird took to the air for the first time, many of the ground crews showed up. I had worked all night, but sleep in those days seemed like nothing but a waste of time so I stayed to watch. The weather was perfect for a December day: clear and cold, with snow on the surrounding mountains. Somewhere around 8 a.m. the desert silence was shattered by the sound of the twin Buick V-8 engines used for the starters. Later, when the Blackbirds operated at their base at Beale, they had permanent start facilities in their hangars, but in the early days two highly modified 425-cubic-inch Buick Wildcats, an estimated 500 horsepower each, were used to turn a massive starter shaft that was inverted into the first one, then the other of the SR-71’s J-58 engines. One sound I shall never forgot is that of those unmuffled Buicks holding steady at better than 6,000 rpm in excess of 15 seconds at a time, all hours of the day and night.

Starting the engines was no easy job. The J-58s’ oil, formulated to lubricate at the high temperatures at Mach 3, was virtually solid at temperatures below 86 degrees. Before each flight, the oil had to be heated, and it took one hour to warm it 10 degrees. Because this maiden flight was on a cold December day, the Buicks were obliged to hold maximum speed a little longer than usual to get both J-58s running.

The ground crews, wearing headsets, ran through their checklists. Kelly Johnson stood by in his familiar dark blue suit and tie, smiling as he had a final word for the pilots.

The ambulances, the fire-rescue teams, and the fuel trucks stood at attendance. And waiting on the strip’s edge, wheels chocked in line, were three Lockheed Constellations. Lockheed had provided two of the last 1049 models and a long-range 1649 for transportation to and from Palmdale or other places. Two of the three still had airline-configured interiors. Johnson had been behind the design of the Constellation too.

As I stood there waiting for the SR-71’s first flight, I looked carefully around that little corner of the world. Watching the men who were there, I tried to find a simple way to describe their achievements, since I knew few would ever say much about themselves.

Most of them had been around Lockheed-built aircraft their whole careers. Many had been in ground crews for the P-38—another Johnson design—in the South Pacific during World War II. They were no strangers to the hard work necessary to get complex aircraft working correctly. Some of them told me that it wasn’t until the P-38G model was produced that the Lightning had a cabin heater that worked well. But in the South Pacific, they said, you didn’t worry about cabin heat—you wanted the P-38’s concentrated nose-gun fire, along with speed, range, and rate of climb.

It had been a long time since these men had worked alongside primitive landing strips pocked with bomb craters. Now they were gray at the temples, their faces full of time, yet they still worked around the clock; they still considered a “well done” the only accolade needed.

One memory from the Blackbird’s early days stands out for me. Several weeks after the first flight two test pilots were debating the performances of the SR-71 and the Lockheed’s F-104 Starfighter—yet another Johnson airplane. At 40,000 feet a minute, the Starfighter was the current leader in rate of climb, as well as holder of numerous flight records.

The two pilots—blond, poker-faced Bill Gilliland and dark, stocky, ebullient Bill Park, later chief of Lockheed’s test pilots and arguably more knowledgeable about the SR-71 than any other man alive—were just out of the Air Force. Like gladiators, they had a fine instinct for survival in a perilous profession. They knew each other’s moves and could handle aircraft past design limits. As they compared the two airplanes, they talked about “some day soon, gettin’ it on.”

When the day of the contest finally arrived, only a few of us were watching. It was a typical spring morning, sometime around 10 a.m., and the desert was silent. I watched with a couple of members of Park’s crew and some others just outside one of the hangars. The concrete beneath our feet was already hot.

Squinting through the glare of cloudless skies I saw two shapes reach the end of the runway and turn slowly into the wind. Down the runway they came, Park in the Blackbird, Gilliland following. The F-104 lifted off first. The Blackbird was off at 230 mph. Gilliland held the Starfighter safely aft of the Blackbird’s port vertical fin.

The Mach 2.5 Starfighter and the young Blackbird flew like this a moment or two, until the pilots were satisfied with their alignment. Then they firewalled the throttles. There was a lag, both aircraft skidding side to side somewhat with the sudden burst of power. The tandem climbout gradually steepened to near-vertical, the Starfighter’s superb J-79 matched against the Blackbird’s massive twin Pratt & Whitneys, and the blue sky was pierced by a shrieking roar.

The two airplanes were together briefly, then the lighter F-104 pulled slightly out front. Gradually the Blackbird caught up and began to pull ahead. The gap grew wider as the two airplanes clawed their way into the sky. Finally, while the F-104 was still in view, the SR-71 became no more than a dark pinpoint, long gone and still pulling away.

A veteran crew chief standing next to me could only murmur, “Her enemies will never be natural.”

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