‘The time of missile launch was important; we were told countless times by our intelligence experts that the SA-2 missile’s total flight time was only 58 seconds,’ Major Jerry Crew, SR-71 Blackbird RSO.
The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was a long-range, high-altitude, Mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance aircraft operated by the US Air Force (USAF).
During aerial reconnaissance missions, the SR-71 operated at high speeds and altitudes (Mach 3.2 and 85,000 feet), allowing it to outrace or entirely avoid threats. If a surface-to-air missile launch was detected, the standard evasive action was simply to accelerate and outpace the missile. On average, each SR-71 could fly once per week due to the extended turnaround required after mission recovery. A total of 32 aircraft were built; 12 were lost in accidents with none lost to enemy action.
Blackbird RSO Major Jerry Crew recalls the first time the SR-71 was shot at by a missile in an interesting piece appeared on Air and Space magazine, in December 2014.
‘The morning of 26 July 1968 started as another typical day at our detachment on Okinawa. Major Tony Bevacqua, pilot, and I formed Crew 013. We were hoping for a chance to fly an operational sortie over North Vietnam and, because of a glitch with the crew in line ahead of us, got it.
‘Our mission would take us over Hanoi and Haiphong. North Vietnam had been socked in for two weeks by weather. Knowing that current, up-to-the-minute intelligence was necessary to conduct the ground war added urgency to our mission.
‘Turning inbound on our first sensor run, I noticed the “R” light on my electronic countermeasures (ECM) panel was illuminated. A North Vietnamese SAM site was tracking us on its radar.
‘What we didn’t expect was the illumination of the “M” light, followed closely by the “L” light! This meant that the North Vietnamese had actually fired one or more SAMs at us. (The “R” light meant they were searching for you, the “M” light meant they were tracking you, and the “L” light meant they were launching at you.) Attempting to seem calm (I failed),
‘I told Tony we had just had a SAM shot at us.
‘This news couldn’t have occurred at a worse time. We had just started our sensor take, and evasive action was not an option. Tony asked how long ago was it launched, and I replied, “About five seconds.” The time of missile launch was important; we were told countless times by our intelligence experts that the SA-2 missile’s total flight time was only 58 seconds. In other words, if nothing happened by then, we were probably safe.
‘We had practiced what to do in the event of a SAM launch many times in the simulator. My duty was to turn off the ECM jammer because we didn’t want the missile tracking the jamming frequency during flight. The purpose of our jammer was to confuse the missile prior to launch. My other duty was to start the stopwatch to time the missile’s flight.
‘My reaction time seemed terribly slow. It took forever to turn off the jammer (actual time: five seconds), and I never started the stopwatch. However, I did notice the position of the second hand on the clock when Tony asked how long ago the missile had been fired.
‘The next 50 seconds are in dispute! I thought the whole time was spent answering Tony about the length of the missile’s flight. “How long has it been?” he asked. “Five seconds since the last time you asked,” I answered. Interphone tapes show that Tony only asked four times. I do know it took much longer than the missile’s predicted flight time to convince us of our safety. We hit a tanker over Thailand. And then flew back over North Vietnam. Our cameras confirmed that they shot two missiles at us luckily, they shot too early and too low.’
Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Facebook Page Habubrats for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force / Lockheed Martin