SR-71's Last Crews: JetHawks Fete 10th Anniversary Of Final Blackbird Flight
Watching the sleek, black SR-71 aircraft lift off of the runway and into the sky instilled awe in those aviation enthusiasts lucky enough to see it.
The deep rumbling of the aircraft's powerful engines added to an experience few have had firsthand of an aircraft capable of traveling nearly 2,200 miles per hour - slightly more than Mach 3.
But for the four honorees at JetHawks Aerospace Appreciation Night at Clear Channel Stadium in Lancaster Aug. 15, the aircraft served primarily as a means of accomplishing their work.
During the 1990s, pilots Ed Schneider and Rogers Smith and flight test engineers Bob Meyer and the late Marta Bohn-Meyer, who also were husband and wife, took to the skies in support of Dryden's use of the aircraft. The JetHawks honored the four as the last crews of the SR-71. The final flight of the aircraft - and of all the storied Blackbirds - was Oct. 9, 1999, at an Edwards Air Force Base open house.
The SR-71 Blackbirds were test beds for high-speed, high-altitude aeronautical research. Smith and Bohn-Meyer were often paired for research flights, as were Schneider and Meyer. Schneider replaced chief project pilot Steve Ishmael when Ishmael was promoted.
Schneider and Smith piloted NASA F/A-18 and T-38 jets accompanied by Dryden research pilots Jim Smolka and Tim Williams during a pre-game flyover. In addition, Maj. Gen. David Eichhorn, commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, joined Meyer in throwing ceremonial first pitches before the game.
As part of the event, the JetHawks distributed a free replica SR-71 complete with a bobblehead pilot head emerging from the cockpit to the first 1,500 fans at the game. Schneider, Smith and Meyer signed autographs at the Dryden exhibit during the ballgame.
Standing first in line was Tom Walsh of Lancaster, who was looking to fill in some autographs in his SR-71 book. He added the three Dryden crewmembers to an estimable collection that included a number of top Lockheed Blackbird pilots.
Walsh had special appreciation for the Blackbirds, as he had worked first with Lockheed subcontractor Hughes Aircraft on the YF-12, and as an analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency, he said.
For Cliff Davis of Santa Clarita, Calif., the Blackbirds will always have special meaning.
"That's what got me into engineering. It was my favorite airplane in high school. I memorized all the stats," Davis recalled.
In addition to their participation in the SR-71 project, the Dryden honorees had long resumes as research pilots in other areas.
Schneider was a Dryden research pilot from 1983 to 2000. He also held administrative positions of increasing responsibility during his tenure at the center, including acting chief of the Flight Crew Branch in 2000.
In addition to his work as an SR-71 pilot, Schneider was well known for his nine-year stint as project pilot for the F-18 High Alpha Research Vehicle, in which he became the first pilot in history to conduct multi-axis thrust-vectored flight.
Bohn-Meyer was the first female flight engineer from NASA or the U.S. Air Force to fly to Mach 3 in an SR-71, an event many have credited with breaking the glass ceiling for thousands of young women seeking careers in aerospace.
She was chief engineer at Dryden and served in a number of other administrative capacities, but she also was well known for her devotion and dedication as a mentor for young girls interested in technical career fields. Bohn-Meyer lost her life Sept. 18, 2005, near Oklahoma City while practicing for an aerobatic flying competition. The annual Math and Science Odyssey at Antelope Valley College, in which she participated each year, now is named in her honor.
In addition to his role as project pilot on the SR-71, Smith was best known as Dryden chief pilot.
Smith, who currently is a consultant, lecturer and instructor at the National Test Pilot School, Mojave, Calif., was seen as a team builder on such projects such as the X-31 Enhanced Fighter Maneuverability Demonstrator. Smith was a project pilot with the multi-axis, thrust-vectoring X-31 and an acting director of flight operations at Dryden.
Meyer currently is program manager for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. Prior to his appointment as SOFIA program manager, Meyer was Dryden associate director for programs from 2004 to 2006. In that role he was responsible for implementing program activity and planning and advocacy for future Dryden research projects.
Earlier in his Dryden career, Meyer served as chief of the Research Engineering Aerodynamics branch and chief engineer on the F-18 High-Angle-of-Attack Vehicle research project. The HARV effort produced technical data to validate computer codes and wind-tunnel research, to help improve the maneuverability of future aircraft.
People can still see Blackbirds in the Antelope Valley. A research SR-71 - the last built and the last flown - is on display at Dryden and another used for testing by the U.S. Air Force is displayed at the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum at Edwards Air Force Base. A former operational SR-71 is on display at Blackbird Airpark on Avenue P in Palmdale, along with the first A-12. Regardless of where people might see a Blackbird, there can be no doubt that it continues to streak through the imaginations of aviation enthusiasts.
By Jay Levine