SR-71 Blackbird

Did you know that before the SR-71 maiden flight the cockpit had to be rearranged or the USAF would not buy the Blackbird? Here’s why.

Before the SR-71 was taken out for its first flight, the cockpit was rearranged. It was very expensive to rearrange the Blackbird’s cockpit but it simply wasn’t functional.

During its career, the SR-71 Blackbird gathered intelligence in some of the world’s most hostile environments.

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.

SR-71 Pilot Cockpit

The SR-71 was conceived to operate at extreme velocities, altitudes and temperatures: actually it was the first aircraft constructed with titanium, as the friction caused by air molecules passing over its surface at Mach 2.6 would melt a conventional aluminum frame.

Its engineering was so cutting edge that even the tools to build the SR-71 needed to be designed from scratch.

The mission of the SR -71 was to take photographs, to use its sensors to pick up electronic surveillance. To safely navigate close to the enemy’s border. The Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO) handled all of that and more.

SR-71 RSO Cockpit

The RSO was the Officer in the SR-71 that, ran the checklist for the Pilot. He had to know his job and the Pilot’s job. He did the Navigation in the SR-71 if the Pilot had to make an emergency landing, which happened more often than you would think he would ask his RSO’s “Where am I landing?” and get the exact coordination from him.

There is a saying: “You’ve never been lost until you’ve been lost going 2,100 mph!”

Before the SR-71 was taken out for its first flight, the cockpit was rearranged. It was very expensive to rearrange this cockpit but simply it wasn’t functional. So, the first three RSOs chosen for the program (Butch Sheffield, Tom Schmittou, and Coz Mallozzi) took a look at it and demanded that they had to redo the cockpit….and they did.

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

A quote from Colonel Richard “Butch” Sheffield’s unpublished book. ‘I asked one of the Lockheed Skunk Works engineers who design this, he said; “NO ONE”. He went on to say, “Kelly told us to put the instruments anywhere they would fit.” What a mess! Airspeed on one side, attitude on the other, altimeter in the middle, we couldn’t even tell what time it was, it was a nightmare.’

My Dad called the Pentagon and told them to finance rearranging the cockpit or the Air Force would not sign off on it. And they did.

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

This model is available in multiple sizes from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.
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.

View Comments

  • Incredulous that the cockpit instrument layouts would be made, apparently so,without inputs from aviators!

  • There are a few things most people do not know about operating the SR-71. First, when prepping the aircraft for take off, there is a long check list of items to be covered. Had the panels not been redesigned, going through that check list would have been difficult and probably lead to mistaken settings. During pre-flight, the panels were arraigned to work left to right making the cockpit ergonomics a bit easier for the pilot to go through the check list. The other issue is that the Blackbird pilot workload was heavy during flight. At each phase of taking off, gaining altitude, cruise, lowering altitude and landing, the pilot work load can be heavy as the pilot manually makes changes to the aircraft such as balancing the fuel between six tanks to keep the cg of the aircraft in check, the inlets to the engines based on speed, temperature, altitude and flight modes. Constant adjustments along with navigating and flying the aircraft put a heavy and continuous workload on the pilot.

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