Here’s why the SR-71 Blackbird airframe was designed to leak fuel

Blackbird pilot recalls when an SR-71 slid on JP-7 fuel residue while taxing into Kadena Hangar

By Linda Sheffield Miller
Aug 5 2023
Share this article

As the Blackbird entered the hangar, it encountered water on the ground, which had mixed with the SR-71’s specialized JP-7 fuel. Together, the two liquids created an extremely slippery surface.

SR-71 T-Shirts
CLICK HERE to see The Aviation Geek Club contributor Linda Sheffield’s T-shirt designs! Linda has a personal relationship with the SR-71 because her father Butch Sheffield flew the Blackbird from test flight in 1965 until 1973. Butch’s Granddaughter’s Lisa Burroughs and Susan Miller are graphic designers. They designed most of the merchandise that is for sale on Threadless. A percentage of the profits go to Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base. This nonprofit charity is personal to the Sheffield family because they are raising money to house SR-71, #955. This was the first Blackbird that Butch Sheffield flew on Oct. 4, 1965.

Developed from the Lockheed A-12 and YF-12A aircraft, the first flight of the SR-71 Mach 3 + spy plane took place on Dec. 22, 1964, and the first aircraft to enter service was delivered to the 4200th (later 9th) Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., in January 1966.

Throughout its nearly 24-year career, the SR-71 remained the world’s fastest and highest-flying operational aircraft. From 80,000 feet, it could survey 100,000 square miles of Earth’s surface per hour.

Colonel (ret) Richard Graham, who is the author of several books on the SR-71 Blackbird, flew this aircraft for seven years and ended up with 756 hours in the cockpit of this unique Mach 3+ jet. He also told BBC Future some of his incredible stories about the world’s fastest plane.

Blackbird pilot recalls when an SR-71 slid on JP-7 fuel residue while taxing into Kadena Hangar

One such story concerned an SR-71’s unfortunate slip-and-slide near-accident at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan.

Japan is known for its sudden and heavy rainstorms, and Okinawa is no stranger to these events. While rain poses a certain danger for all planes—mainly because of decreased visibility—the storm had a particularly unfortunate effect on one SR-71, which was returning from a mission at the time and taxiing into a hangar. As the plane entered the hangar, it encountered water on the ground, which had mixed with the SR-71’s specialized JP-7 fuel [CLICK HERE to read why producing thousand gallons of JP-7 fuel used in the SR-71 Blackbird caused a nationwide shortage of Flit insecticide]. Together, the two liquids created an extremely slippery surface, preventing the Blackbird’s wheels from gaining any traction on the hangar’s floor.

Graham recalls;

SR-71 print
This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. SR-71A Blackbird 61-7972 “Skunkworks”

‘Rainstorms could be deadly: “In Okinawa, unfortunately, we had a lot of rainstorms which just come out of nowhere. And when you mix JP-7 with a little bit of rain it gets very, very slippery on the ground. An SR-71 was coming back from a mission. He was coming back into the hangar. Don [ Don Emmons, Graham’s navigator] and I were on back-up duty so we were in the hangar. As he came in to the hangar, he slows down, he’s right on the centreline… and we notice his brakes are locked up, the wheels aren’t rotating anymore, and he’s still going through the hangar, sliding. And you would not believe how many maintenance people realised immediately something was wrong with this airplane. We had maintenance guys throwing chocks under the wheel but it kept on moving. Don and I were grabbing on to the wingtip to try and stop it, people were grabbing every part of the airplane as they realised it was an emergency. It was like a dream in slow motion as this airplane just went through the hangar. And it stopped, when the main wheels just caught the other side of the hangar onto the concrete. And its pitot tube, the tube at the front, came about a foot from ramming a curved blast deflector we have for jet engines.”’

Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Facebook Pages Habubrats SR-71 and Born into the Wilde Blue Yonder for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Peter Grassberger Own Work via Wikipedia

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird model
This model is available in multiple sizes from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

Share this article

Linda Sheffield Miller

Linda Sheffield Miller

Grew up at Beale Air Force Base, California. I am a Habubrat. Graduated from North Dakota State University. Former Public School Substitute Teacher, (all subjects all grades). Member of the DAR (Daughters of the Revolutionary War). I am interested in History, especially the history of SR-71. Married, Mother of three wonderful daughters and four extremely handsome grandsons. I live near Washington, DC.
Share this article

Share this article
Back to top