Flight Of The NASA Blackbird
It has been about 10 years since Rogers Smith and Bob Meyer made the last flight of the storied Blackbirds when the SR-71 wowed a crowd attending the Edwards Air Force Base open house in October 1999.
The enthusiasm and awe created by the Blackbirds is alive and well. Crowds at JetHawks Aerospace Appreciation Night celebrated the anniversary of that last flight on Aug. 15 at Clear Channel Stadium.
Dryden crowds were equally enthusiastic a day earlier when three members of the last SR-71 aircrews, including Meyer, who at that time flew as a flight test engineer, former Dryden pilots Smith and Ed Schneider recounted some adventures in the SR-71 as well as a bit of Blackbird history.
Two SR-71 Blackbird aircraft were flown by Dryden for high-speed and high-altitude aeronautical research during the 1990s. The aircraft included an SR-71A and an SR-71B trainer version, both loaned to NASA by the U.S. Air Force. The SR-71 is the world's fastest and highest-flying production aircraft, capable of attaining more than three times the speed of sound and altitudes of more than 85,000 feet.
Dryden flight experiments were made in a number of areas - aerodynamics, propulsion, structures, thermal protection materials, high-speed and high-temperature instrumentation, atmospheric studies and sonic boom characterization. Research from that program is still used to aid designers of future supersonic and hypersonic aircraft and propulsion systems.
"I feel lucky in the sense I got to do what I always dreamed of doing," Smith said. "And believe me, I always dreamed of flying an aircraft like the SR-71. It was the most intense airplane I ever flew."
The teamwork of everyone makes a difference.
"[Research flying] is special because it represents a team of people who work to let us fly. No one sees their faces or knows their names. When I fly, I always feel like I fly with the hopes and dreams of a lot of people on my shoulders and it is very special to fly for them," Schneider said.
On that note, Meyer added, "Keep working toward your dreams; you don't know what you can achieve."
In addition to giving information about the aircraft's origin and functions, the men also described a planned 1997 pilot proficiency flight and flyover of the Oshkosh AirVenture event, where Smith and Meyer were to fly in support of the 50th anniversary of the Air Force. The men were descending near Lake Michigan and accompanied by Jim Smolka in an F/A-18.
While the SR-71 was refueling the boom operator on the tanker radioed that the Blackbird was "leaking quite a bit of fuel," Rogers said. "It turned out that a small fuel line with a lot of pressure - that if it had been lit by the afterburner, it might not have been a good day."
The flight was aborted and the men landed in Milwaukee. The left engine needed replacement and a C-130 was sent to Dryden to retrieve the new engine as well as equipment and personnel needed to repair the aircraft. Former Dryden Center Director Kenneth Szalai said it was a testament to the aircraft's popularity that 5,000 people attended a ground run of the SR-71 engine and more than 20,000 witnessed the aircraft's takeoff from Milwaukee when it headed back to Dryden.
The adventure was just beginning for the aircrew. On the subsonic trip back from Milwaukee there was a malfunction in the left inlet that would "unstart no matter what we did," Meyer recalled.
"The aircraft did a 'falling leaf' from 70,000 feet. It leveled out at 30,000 feet and I think we were told it had 15 unstarts on the way down.
"I was not exactly sure where we were. We were somewhere over Nebraska. I got on the radio to find someone to talk to, to find a tanker in the area, because we did not have enough fuel to get to Edwards."
A tanker was located and the men made it back safely to Dryden.
Dryden pilots also supported the temporary reactivation of two other SR-71As for the Air Force in the mid-1990s. Two YF-12A prototypes and one SR-71 had also been flown at the center in the 1970s in a joint NASA/Air Force program aimed at learning more about the capabilities and limitations of high-speed, high-altitude flight.
Developed for the Air Force as a reconnaissance aircraft about five decades ago, the Blackbirds were designed by a team of Lockheed Advanced Development Projects division personnel led by Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, at that time vice president of the Lockheed branch commonly known as the Skunk Works.
The basic design of the SR-71 aircraft began in secrecy in the late l950s under the Central Intelligence Agency's Project Oxcart. The original model, designated A-12, first flew in April 1962. President Lyndon Johnson publicly revealed the existence of an interceptor version, called YF-12A, on Feb. 29, 1964, when he announced that it had flown at sustained speeds of over 2,000 miles per hour during tests at Edwards Air Force Base.
Two YF-12A aircraft and an SR-71 (called the YF-12C) were flown at Dryden from 1969 to 1979. The crews included project pilots Don Mallick and Fitzhugh Fulton and flight test engineers Victor Horton and William "Ray" Young. Dryden pilots Bill Dana, Einar Enevoldson, Steve Ishmael, Gary Krier, John Manke, Tom McMurtry and Mike Swann also flew the aircraft.
By Jay Levine