SR-71 RSO tells the story behind this video of a Blackbird creating ’13 Fireballs’ during Air Fete Air Show 1986 at RAF Mildenhall

Did you know the SR-71 crew set off controlled explosions using Triethylborane (the most dangerous material after fissionable nuclear material) to start the Blackbird engines?

By Linda Sheffield Miller
Oct 23 2022
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‘The NTSB lists Triethylborane [TEB] as the following most dangerous material, one step below fissionable nuclear material,’ Former SR-71 Blackbird pilot David Peters.

Taken by Stuart Freer at RAF Mildenhall in 1986, the impressive photo in this post features an SR-71 Blackbird Mach 3 spy plane creating spectacular fireballs while performing at Air Fete Air Show.

Former Blackbird RSO, Lt. Col. Doug Soifer recalls in Richard H. Graham’s book SR-71 Revealed The Inside Story.

‘During that pass we [Soifer and Mike Smith, the pilot] had “13 fireballs” come out of the plane’s exhaust. It looked beautiful, and people wanted to know if it could be done again. They used the picture of us with the flames coming out for the next year’s Air Fete poster. Mike and I became known as the “Fireball Twins.” The maintenance people figured it was the TEB [triethylborane] shooting out of its container and igniting the JP-7. With that start, we had an exciting six weeks in England.’

The SR-71 burned JP-7 fuel. A one-of-a-kind fuel that used an additive to raise its flash point so the fuel would not break down at extreme temperatures.

Graham recalls;

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

‘The high flashpoint brings up another problem. Most jet engines use igniter plugs, nothing more than a very hot spark plug, if you will. Using these igniter plugs they used with the JP-7 and just drowns it out, it won’t ignite. Kelly [Johnson] put his engineers to work, and he said, ‘OK, gentlemen, how are we going to start this?’ They came up with a very unique way. Triethylborane – TEB for short. Each engine has a one-and-a-quarter pint. If I had it in a squirt gun and I squirted it into the atmosphere, it would go Kaboom! – it explodes with contact with the atmosphere. And that’s how we started the engines. As the engines rotate, at the right time, it sprays this amount of TEB into the turbine section, which goes kaboom, which in turn lights the engine. When you take the throttles up into the afterburner, it puts this metered amount of TEB in that lights up the JP-7. You get 16 shots for each engine.’

Mounted on each engine was a sealed tank, inerted with nitrogen gas and filled by maintenance with 600cc of TEB prior to each flight.

Former SR-71 Blackbird pilot David Peters explains: ‘An interesting note to this is the transport of it. If we landed away, servicing had to be hauled to our location. The NTSB lists TEB as the following most dangerous material, one step below fissionable nuclear material. The folks that handled this stuff were highly trained and good.’

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: Stuart Freer

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

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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.

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