Blackbird Among the Stars

Today marks the 47th anniversary of the first flight of the SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane. Which reminds me of this well-written article by an SR-71 pilot, especially the following passage.

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 power. 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.

Read the whole thing.

12 thoughts on “Blackbird Among the Stars”

  1. My father had a golf driving range when I was a teenager. He opposed my plan of going to college and wanted me to be a golf pro. Sometimes, at night, after we had turned out the lights, i would lie on the artificial tees and look at the sky. The Milky Way was very distinct in that suburban area. I spent a lot of time watching it.

  2. Golf pro?

    I can see the wisdom in your father’s wish – much more stable a profession than CalTech graduate or MD ;-)

    For once the son was on the right path – not the father

  3. I might add that, as I was courting my first wife, He father, who worked for Hughes Aircraft Company, and I used to talk about the U2, secret at the time, and other highly secret topics that I knew about from my work as an aeronautical engineer at Douglas and he knew about from Hughes. Ultimately, our marriage didn’t survive because she wanted the life her sorority sisters had but he and I (and her mother) stayed friends until he died.

  4. As a kid I was at the air force base in Great Falls, Montana (Malmstrom). There was a blackbird there. I was able to walk near it. There was a soldier adjacent to it with a machine gun. The sign said

    “Use of deadly force authorized”

    They weren’t messing around.

  5. What an amazing plane that was – if you haven’t read it I recommend the book by Ben Rich – Skunk Works he succeeded the legendary Kelly Johnson – the book goes into the development of the U2 and then the SR-71.

    Most of the development issues were predictably metallurgy. They were problems that I am sure would be difficult even today.

    My best memory of the Blackbird was fairly up close and personal. Had to have been 20 years ago, when I attended an airshow at Beale AFB. The SR-71 was based at Beale, Okinawa, and (I believe) Mildenhall in the UK.

    The plane took off and the announcer said it would be refueled at about 30,000 feet. They didn’t take off with full tanks.

    Once refueled, it flew to Denver – a good 1200 miles away, just to heat up. It makes a 180 degree turn in Denver, comes back to Beale for a low pass over the runway.

    I am watching this plane do a 100′ low pass run over the runway when he hits the afterburners.

    You know what it looks like when a smoker blows a smoke ring?

    That’s what I saw from those J-58s, only I knew it wasn’t smoke. Maybe a disturbance in the air molecules?

    never will forget that.

    Even the tires were special – made with an aluminum compound to prevent them from blowing out at the extreme high speeds (and temperatures so high that the fuselage actually expanded 6″ at speed).

    Many of you have probably seen this story that has circulated on the Net but if you haven’t here it is – written by Brian Shul, who as one of the 90+ pilots who ever flew it – has written most of the stories. I have heard this from numerous sources and can say they were flying into Edwards about 100 miles from Los Angeles , and they are as the story says, at 81,000 feet!

    ….. 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 high Mach 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 40 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 twin 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 Walter’s mike button in the rear seat. In his most innocent voice, Walter 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 that frequency all the way to the coast.

  6. I reread that linked story – my apologies for including my saved excerpt again. As I recall from the book designing those inlets was a special challenge – at those high speeds the incoming air was a problem.

    I would have bought Shul’s book years ago – but he wanted $500 (no decimal) for it.

    If you like this plane the book by Ben Rich is a must-read – he goes into the development of the F117 too – the first Stealth plane.

    I have, saved on my hard disk, a powerpoint file of pictures of the U2 in development – in Nevada in the early 50s.

    One mental image from the book – was pilots over the USSR reporting the MIG contrails from 30,000 feet below – trying to shoot the U2 – that must have been an eerie sight.

  7. One more thing – there was an offshoot of this plane – a version that supposedly would launch a drone off the top of the fuselage – the prototype was destroyed when the released drone hit the mothership.

    So many fascinating stories about this plane – I will search the web for 2 others – one – the pilot was going to do a flyby for some British schoolchildren at a base – they are a bit lost above the clouds – the pilot cuts the throttles back to the point the plane is in a near stall – it is plummeting through the clouds – he is giving it throttles –

    As it happened the plane was right over the base – the school children see this monster black plane suddenly appear out from the clouds the clouds – “BOOM” – the engines are spooling up and the plane is off

    Pilot and RIO are back at their base – the base commander is congratulating them on what a fine show they put on – not realizing it was near disaster –

    I am going to search the web to see about the test flight that ended up as a crash in a Utah or NM ranch –

    here it is – by Bill Weaver – I got a laugh when Weaver said he thought he might die in the rancher’s helicopter after surviving a mach 3 disintegration …. but I digress – let Bill tell the story…

  8. There’s a spot in the Udvar-Hazy annex to the Air & Space museum where you can stand facing the Enola Gay. To your left hangs 1930’s era biplane, to your right you can glimpse an SR-71. The time between the biplane and the B-29 was 10 years. Twenty years later, in the mid-60’s, the SR-71 was flying and Apollo was being built. Fifteen years after that the Space Shuttle was flying.

    Civilization seemed to stop moving forward in the United States in the 1960’s. We’ve been surviving on momentum and the investments of our ancestors ever since.

  9. Michael…There’s been a lot of technological progress since the 1960s, but it’s been concentrated too exclusively in computer-related fields. (Indeed, the word “technology” is now pretty much used as a synonym for “computer stuff.”)

    Part of this is just that computer technology is newer so had further to go. Part of it is fashion-following, part of it is regulation and litigation, and part of it is that investments required for projects in energy, aviation, etc tend to require larger chunks of investment than software or even most computer hardware projects and hence are not a good fit to the VC industry as it has evolved.

    One exception is advanced drilling technologies (“fracking”) for gas and oil, which are enormously important and are one of the few bright spots in the economy.

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