Losses and Aviation Safety

Bailing out at Mach 3: the incredible story of Bill Weaver, the first pilot to eject from an SR-71 Blackbird

Lockheed test pilots Bill Weaver and Jim Zwayer on Jan. 26, 1966… were flying the #952 at Mach 3.18, at 78,800 feet when a serious engine unstart and the subsequent “instantaneous loss of engine thrust” occurred…

During the Cold War, there was a need for a new reconnaissance aircraft that could evade enemy radar, and the customer needed it fast. At Lockheed Martin’s advanced development group, the Skunk Works, work had already begun on an innovative aircraft to improve intelligence-gathering, one that would fly faster than any aircraft before or since, at greater altitude, and with a minimal radar cross section. The team rose to the nearly impossible challenge, and the aircraft took its first flight on Dec. 22, 1964. The legendary SR-71 Blackbird was born.

As Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) explained on her Facebook Page Habubrats: ‘The first Blackbird accident that occurred that required the Pilot and the RSO to Eject happened before the SR-71 was turned over to the Air Force. Lockheed test pilots Bill Weaver and Jim Zwayer on Jan. 26, 1966… were flying the #952 at Mach 3.18, at 78,800 feet when a serious engine unstart and the subsequent “instantaneous loss of engine thrust” occurred. The engine will not return — Bill tried to communicate with Jim in the backseat but the Intercom connection was all garbled. Bill made the first supersonic parachute jump [in an SR-71].’

Bill Weaver

The following is what Alex Fox Rudinski wrote about the crash on Medium.com.

‘Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird… it’s a plane!

‘Well, not anymore, at least.

‘Now, it’s Bill!, limp-rag unconscious, falling from the top of the sky. He looks the same as dead. But Bill must know some powerful gods, because he’s starting to come around. Give him space: this won’t be a pleasant awakening.

‘Bill returns to utter bafflement. Inside his helmet, perhaps he cocks his head to the side with the earnest inquisitiveness of a confused German Shepard. Something isn’t right.

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‘It’s like his stream of conscious experience turned over too many pages at once: he knows he’s missed something, in between. Bill was in an airplane: now, he’s definitely not. The little he remembers is bad.

‘His brain, though not yet operational, does its best to help him explain: Bill, it informs himself with a doctor’s solemnity, I’m afraid you must be dead. Fortunately Bill was not dead. But his friend Jim was.’

Bill successfully landed in New Mexico. Jim Zwayer broke his neck and died as a result of the accident.

Linda recalls: ‘My father Butch Sheffield was there that day in the flight control tower, he was the one that called in to report the accident. Little more than a year after this accident my father also bailed out of the SR 71. He remembered what happened to Jim, and he survived the ejection.’

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Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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