Almost Astronauts

Oct. 1, 1990

They fit somewhere between aviators and astronauts, these men who flew the SR-71 Blackbird and its Lockheed siblings, the A-12 and the YF-12. They flew almost to the border of space, so high they could see the curvature of the Earth. Above 80,000 feet, nearly sixteen miles high, the sky overhead was deep blue, almost black, and stars were visible at noon.

They flew so fast they could literally pass a speeding bullet. Cruising speed exceeded 2,100 miles per hour, three times the speed of sound. They were armed only with cameras and radar–and, of course, that blinding speed. No enemy aircraft ever caught a Blackbird, let alone shot one down.

“It’s sort of a fraternity, and not a very large fraternity,” says retired Maj. Gen. Frank Elliott, one of these almost-astronauts. “There was only one outfit of SR-71s. There are not that many people who have flown it.”

On the lapel of his sport coat, Elliott, sixty-five, wears his “fraternity” pin, a tiny pewter model of the SR-71 with a red “3 +” embossed on it. “You have to have flown in excess of Mach 3 to get that pin,” he explains. He’s a silver-haired man who retains his military posture and sometimes lapses into a Chuck Yeager-like drawl common to many pilots of hot airplanes.

The SR-71 could well have flown into the twenty-first century, contends Elliott, and many other former crew members agree. When the Air Force retired the plane this year and shipped the dozen or so remaining

Blackbirds to museums and to NASA, obsolescence wasn’t the reason. It still holds world records for speed over a straight course (2,193 mph) and altitude in horizontal flight (85,069 feet). In March, the aircraft shattered the Los Angeles-Washington, D. C., speed record, making the trip in sixty-eight minutes, seventeen seconds, on its way to its new home, the National Air and Space Museum.

What doomed the SR-71 was money–or, rather, the lack of it. The plane was expensive to operate ($200 million to $300 million each year; $18,000 per hour for special fuel alone), and an existing network of satellites could perform its photographic mission. The cost to operate the fleet of SR-71s equaled the operating costs of two fighter wings, and their data could be obtained elsewhere.

Born in the Black

Frank Elliott had his eyes on the Blackbird early, when the plane was still “in the black” and unknown to all but a select few. He saw it well before the day that President Lyndon Johnson, trying to deflect soft-on- defense charges from challenger Barry Goldwater, raised eyebrows by publicly acknowledging the SR-71’s existence during the 1964 Presidential campaign.

In 1962, the first of the supersecret spy planes–then designated A-12–were flying from the classified Groom Lake, Nev., testing facility, dubbed “the ranch.” Elliott was commanding the 465th Strategic Aerospace Wing at Beale AFB, Calif. Specially modified KC-135 tankers from his unit carried out the in-flight refueling of the fledgling Blackbirds. The tanker pilots went through security checks before being assigned to the mission. Some crew members worked behind screens that prevented them from seeing what kind of plane was being refueled.

“We were doing this for two years before the airplane came out of the black,” says Elliott, now retired and working as the economic development coordinator for the municipality of Rantoul, Ill. “By that time, I wanted to fly it so bad I could taste it “

He would wait six more years for the chance. It finally came in 1970 when, after a tour of duty at the Pentagon, Elliott was named commander of the 14th Strategic Aerospace Division at Beale AFB. By then, the SR-71s, now fully operational and flying missions over Vietnam and other world hot spots, were based there as part of the division’s 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing.

Today, pictures and paintings of planes Elliott flew over a thirty-year Air Force career line the walls of his office: B-24 and B-52 bombers, F-4 Phantom fighters. The largest display is a montage depicting SR-71s.

In one head-on photo of a parked Blackbird, the twin tail fins, bulging engine nacelles, and single eye of its front cockpit canopy give the plane the appearance of an angry insect. Another shot, looking down on the plane in flight, reveals its futuristic lines.

In his biography, former Soviet pilot Lt. Viktor Belenko, who defected in 1976, writes about (then) top-of-the-line Russian MiG-25 fighters attempting to intercept SR-71s operating along the Soviet Union’s east coast. The Blackbirds taunted and toyed with the MiG-25s, reports Lieutenant Belenko, “scooting up to altitudes the Soviet planes could not reach and circling leisurely above them, or dashing off at speeds the Russians could not match.”

Legend has it that the Blackbird could photograph the numbers on a license plate from an altitude of 80,000 feet. The Air Force never confirmed that, although it has admitted that one could probably identify a person from some of the SR-71’s pictures.

Elliott is certainly not alone when he says that “a lot of tears were shed” over the demise of the SR-71. There is a mystique about these planes. For the public, it is a mystique built on flying speed, altitude, and the secrecy that shrouded the Blackbird. For the crew members, it likely comes from being almost astronauts.

Elliott recalls undergoing “an astronaut physical” before being allowed to pilot the Blackbird. Preparations for an SR-71 flight in many ways resembled the launch process for a space mission.

Breathing Pure Oxygen

The plane’s two-man crew, a pilot and reconnaissance systems operator, ate special meals before a flight and breathed pure oxygen. The oxygen purged nitrogen from their bloodstreams and prevented the high-altitude problem of severe cramping. They also underwent an abbreviated physical before being helped into their helmeted flight suits, garments nearly the same as those worn by early astronauts.

A seven-person ground crew strapped them into the SR-71 and gave the plane a detailed preflight examination. A truckload of crew members trailed it down the runway on takeoff, visually confirming that all systems were go. Then they were off (“You really get a kick in the tail when you start,” says Elliott) and up and up and up, leaving a trail of shock diamonds and sonic booms behind them.

Finally, the crew would be alone. Even though they were at 80,000 feet and clipping along at three times the speed of sound, there was little sensation of speed, says Elliott. At that altitude, there were no visual clues as to their progress.

Outside, the temperature on certain portions of the SR-71’s titanium skin neared 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Expansion from the heat made the plane grow nine inches longer during a normal flight–an amazing statistic considering the Blackbird’s titanium skin. Once on the ground again, the plane would cool and contract to its former size. Inside, air-conditioning kept the tight-fitting cockpit at a cool sixty degrees.

Though the stars always were out at that altitude, there was little time to gaze at the constellations. Most of a flight was spent monitoring instruments and staying on course, recalls Elliott. When traveling at thirty-two miles a minute, a wrong turn can result in a detour of several hundred miles–or more–quickly. Planned turns started 100 miles ahead of the actual event. It was hard work. The plane’s design may have been from the future, but its controls were strictly from the 1950s and 1960s, before cockpit computers took over many routine flying chores.

The All-Important “X”

SR-71 crews took off knowing their exact longitude and latitude, their precise location on the face of the Earth. An “X” on the ground under the front wheels of the plane’s landing gear marked the exact spot. The crews needed to know just where they started to get where they were going. At an altitude of fifteen miles, there weren’t any landmarks.

“This [aircraft] flew very conventionally, very responsive[ly],” Elliott says. “The systems were very reliable. We very seldom had any problems at all. But you could never relax. If you have a problem up there. . . .” Elliott’s voice trails off. (Others did sometimes have mechanical problems, including number of SR-71 “unstarts,” or engine shutdowns in flight.)

Most Blackbird flights ranged in duration from two and a half to six hours. Some, however, might last as long as ten or twelve hours. One day, the destination may have been the Persian Gulf or Cuba, the next China or Lebanon, all places the planes are known to have operated over in an estimated sixty-five million miles of flying and spying.

On the ground afterward, support crews were warned not to touch the Blackbird for half an hour, until it cooled down. The post-flight inspection checklist included 650 steps.

“It was one of a kind,” Elliott says, a little sadly, lightly tapping an old photo of himself in a flight suit, helmet under the crook of his right arm, standing in front of an SR-71. His hair and the plane are black.

Greg Kline is a reporter for the Champaign-Urbana, III., News-Gazette, where for four years he covered events at Chanute AFB, III. This is his first article for AIR FORCE Magazine.