by lyle e davis
We have right here in San Diego County a lot of true American heroes. Probably not surprising, given our large military population, both retired and active duty. We have at least one who has flown over Russia, China, North Korea, Libya, many other hostile nations many, many times. Each time he would go on these missions he risked his life. He was a pilot of the famous SR-71, better known to most of us as “The Blackbird.”
Our hero asked that we not use his real name. We shall respect that. Though it has been 40 years since he flew his last Blackbird mission, he is still sensitive to those areas that are still secret and/or top secret. Let’s call him Tom, since that’s not his real name.
The recruiting of pilots to fly America’s top secret spy planes can be and is done in a myriad of ways. Those charged with that responsibility of recruiting often come from within the CIA; sometimes from other military intelligence units. They all seek the same. Top pilots with unblemished records and who can be cleared as to their reliability, integrity, and trustworthiness.
Sometimes they are recruited from within the American Air Forces . . . sometimes they go to other countries. They will recruit directly from air forces; sometimes they approach indirectly, such as through an embassy, consulate, or military liaison office.
Once identified, the pilot(s) are thoroughly vetted by the CIA to ensure their loyalties and then they bring them into the fold. And thus the making of a spy begins.
Initially, Tom, our example in this case, was assigned to Weisbaden, Germany, for training. Following completion of this assignement he was then assigned to Selma, Alabama, where he was to train in T-33 Jet Trainers. He already knew how to fly them but now, following an initial meeting with some top brass, he would fly them using only instruments. This would become commonplace.
Upon his arrival in Selma the “top brass” turned out to be really top brass. He was in rather important company. None other than President Dwight David Eisenhower, Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles and CIO Chief, Allen Dulles.
Ike told the pilots, essentially, “we’re interested in recruiting you lads as pilots for highly sensitive and technical missions involving reconaissance over hostile territories. We’ll give you top performance aircraft to do your jobs. If you should be shot down, chances are the Russians won’t kill you. We have more of their people than they have of ours and chances are we can work a trade.”
A hollowed out, CIA supplied,
silver dollar. A simple trigger
mechanism would prick a finger with instantly fatal poison
Tom would begin his training in the T-33, flying hour after hour “under the hood,” which means flying with a hood over your head that prevents you from seeing outside the aircraft. You have to rely on your instruments to know where you are and how to get where you are going. Tom and his colleagues also underwent training in spycraft. What to do if shot down.
“They told us, ‘go ahead and tell them what you’re doing.’ They already know anyway. The Russians were watching us night and day and even when they couldn’t see us, they pretty much knew we were overflying their country and taking pretty pictures. They did give us a shiny silver dollar. Inside this silver dollar was an instantly deadly poison. If we felt we were going to be shot or tortured, we had the option of triggering that silver dollar, pricking our hand, and we’d be gone. Instantly. They did not encourage us to commit suicide. But they gave us the option.”
One of Tom’s roommates was Francis Gary Powers, he of the ill fated U-2 Spy Plane that was shot down by the Russians.
“While we weren’t encouraged to commit suicide; our trainers did encourage us to flip a switch before exiting our doomed aircraft which would trigger an explosion and destroy the instruments on board the plane. Powers was unable to do that because his plane was hit in the tail. The elevators were gone, as was the stabilizer. He was falling in such a tight circle that the centrifugal force would not allow his arm to reach up and trigger the destroy switch. He was barely able to reach down and pull the ejector switch which ignited the rockets that exploded his ejection seat and parachute.
There were rumors that if we hit the toggle swtich to explode the instruments that the whole plane would explode at the same time, taking us with it. That simply wasn’t true. Many times the CIA would actually hit the trigger and blow the equipment package up as part of a ground demonstration . . . it was a small, shaped charge, designed to only destroy a specific target.”
Tom knew Francis Gary Powers very well. “Everyone describes him as ‘Francis Gary Powers.’ We just called him Frank.” (Powers was later traded for a Russian spy. Still later, he was killed in a helicopter accident in Los Angeles where he was working as a traffic reporter for a local radio station).
Following his training at Selma, Alabama, Tom was transferred to the famous “Area 51,” in Nevada, where he began his training in U-2 spyplanes. This would be home for quite some time. Tom would eventually have flown 7600 hours in the U-2 and overflew Russia, China, North Korea, and Libya. Asked if he had drawn fire, “Oh, yes. But they could never hit us. We were flying too high and too fast. By the time their radar signal hit us, if it ever did, and by the time the signal bounced back to their radar unit, 1.5 seconds had elapsed. Flying at 2500 miles per hour, and as high as 84,000 feet, we were long gone. They didn’t have a chance.”
In 1959 the Air Force began the transition from the U-2 spy plane to the newer SR71 Blackbird. Finally, on April 16, 1962, the Blackbird had its first official test flight. The first man to fly the Blackbird was Louis W. “Bob” Schalk, since deceased. During the period of 1959 through 1962, Tom and his colleagues were passed off as “Lockheed employees.”
In October of 1962 Tom moved from the U-2 pilot’s seat to that of the Blackbird. Over the ensuing years, Tom would spend an average of seven hours per Blackbird flight. That seems like a long time to be flying a plane . . . but it wasn’t nearly as bad as flying a U-2. With a U-2, the average flight time was closer to 14 hours.
Most often the Blackbird would fly out of England, though Okinawa would serve from time to time as a base for flights over China, North Korea, and other areas of interest.
Tom learned many things about his Blackbird . . . some of which might make for interesting trivia questions:
Q. How do you start the engines on a Blackbird?
A. The specialized fuel for a Blackbird will not ignite by flame or electrical spark. It must be ignited by a special chemical. Even if you lose an engine (or engines) while airborne, you restart using this chemical injection.
Q. What is the takoff speed of a Blackbird?
A. 220 knots (about 253 miles per hour).
Q. What is the landing speed of a Blackbird?
A. 145 knots at touchdown (about 166 mph). (It is also interesting to note that the Blackbird does not have flaps. You have to maintain the ‘angle of attack [not to exceed 8 degrees], reduce speed, and simply settle in on a very long runway. You do not ‘flare out’ as you might on a normal aircraft as a ‘flaring out’ would change the angle of attack and could become catastrophic.) Because you are unable to use flaps or “flare out” for a landing, Blackbird requires a very long runway. The runway at Broom Lake/Area 51 in Nevada, for example, is 36,000 feet in length. This allows plenty of room for Blackbird to gently settle down and make a nice touchdown while still maintaining no more than an 8 degree angle of attack.
Q. What is the minimum airspeed above 25,000’?
A. 310 knots (about 356 mph).
Q. What is the speed capacity of Blackbird?
A. 3.2 to 4.2 Mach (maximum).
Mach = 761.2 mph so, Mach 3.2 = 2283.60 miles per hour. Mach 4.2 = 3197 mph. (There will be some variation in Mach measurements, depending upon temperature and air pressure. These figures are for sea level).
Q. What kind of equipment and/or flight gear does a Blackbird pilot wear?
A. Essentially, he (or she, for there was at least one female Blackbird pilot) is in a space suit, identical to what our astronauts wear. The pilot’s cabin is pressurized constantly to 25,000 feet. If, for any reason, the pilot has to eject and he is flying at 25,000, 50,000, even 84,000 feet, his space suit will protect him with pressurized air and plenty of oxygen to breathe. Once his parachute deploys, he has an oxygen tank on board his flight suit and will breathe through that until he enters the lower atmosphere where it would be safe enough, and warm enough, to breathe ambient air, should he choose to do so. He may opt to simply continue on oxygen until rescued. Automatic radio signals begin immediately so tracking Search and Rescue Aircraft can find the ejected pilot. Should the pilot land in the ocean, even if it is the mid-Atlantic, in the middle of the winter, his suit will protect him from the elements. Again, he has a steady flow of oxygen so he should be relatively comfortable in the ocean until Search and Rescue forces can reach him. (And Blackbird pilots are high priority targets for Search and Rescue).
Tom had to go to Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to go through the high altitude chamber at atmospheres equal to 70,000 and 90,000 feet. He, and his colleagues, are well trained in what to do in the event they are required to enter that atmosphere.
Q. What does the Blackbird weigh?
A. Fully loaded with fuel, it will weight between 140,000 and 142,000 lbs.
Q. What is the skin temperature of Blackbird when at optimum speed.?
A. Way too hot to touch, even with asbestos gloves. The aircraft skin is approximately 1000 degrees, Fahrenheit. Even the canopy is so hot you cannot touch it.
Q. Where can we see the Blackbird?
A. Very close by. Balboa Park has a Blackbird on display. It’s aircraft number is 933.
There were 16 Blackbirds assigned to the CIA initially, running from 924 to 940, three were assigned to the Air Force. All subsequent Blackbirds were given to the Air Force. A total of 50 SR71’s were built. Today, NASA has the money necessary to still operate the Blackbird.
You can also see a Blackbird at March Air Force Base, Riverside, and at Beale Air Force Base, Sacramento. There were a total of 50 SR71’s built. NASA has also made great use of the Blackbird.
Tom retired in 1968 from the CIA and the Air Force. He still has get-togethers with his old chums, both pilots as well as operational personnel.
During his career, Tom flew 160 different planes and amassed over 28,000 flight hours. Of those hours, 1516 hours were flying the Blackbird, 7600 hours were flying the U-2.
Today, Tom is a civilian. Has been for a long time. He also has memories, many of them. The type that most of us who love to fly, can only dream about.
Personal interviews with retired SR-71 pilot - name withheld for security reasons.