SR-71 Blackbird

First SR-71 RSO explains why Reconnaissance Systems Officer cockpit had to be rearranged before the Blackbird maiden flight or the USAF would not buy the SR-71

‘Airspeed indicators were on one side, attitude indicators were on the other, altimeter gauges were in the middle, and we couldn’t even tell what time it was. It was a nightmare,’ Richard “Butch” Sheffield first SR-71 Blackbird RSO.

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

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.

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.

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.

SR-71 Pilot Cockpit

My father, then Captain Richard “Butch” Sheffield, was the first man picked for the SR-71 program. Colonel Doug Nelson hired him away from the B-58 program. He had a perfect bomb run record after flying the B-58 for five years.

After leaving Little Rock Air Force Base (AFB) arriving at Beale AFB in California, my father was then sent down to Southern California. He went to flight test school at Skunk Works in Palmdale, CA the class was taught on the top floor by a Lockheed employee and Kelly Johnson and Ben Rich.

Dad, Coz Mallozzi and Tom Schmittou (the first three RSOs chosen for the program), did not like what they saw in the RSO Cockpit hence it was rearranged. It was very expensive to rearrange the cockpit but simply it wasn’t functional. So my father, Schmittou, and Mallozzi demanded that they had to redo the cockpit otherwise the program probably would’ve failed….and they did.

The following story is a small portion from my Dad Colonel Richard “Butch” Sheffield’s unpublished book.

SR-71 RSO Cockpit

‘While attending class at the Skunk Works, I saw the insides of the Navigators’ (later the RSO cockpit) of the SR-71, I asked one of the Lockheed SW engineers who designed the layout, and his response was, “NO ONE.” He went on to say, Kelly told us to put the instruments “anywhere they would fit.” What a mess! Airspeed indicators were on one side, attitude indicators were on the other, altimeter gauges were in the middle, and we couldn’t even tell what time it was. It was a nightmare. We, the first three SAC Navigators who were headed for Edwards, Beale and back to Strategic Air Command (SAC) went to see test force personnel who could see we were upset at the lack of design for the RSO human factors layout.

‘They said that it would cost money to rearrange the RSO backseat. We said that the SAC crews would not sign off on this type of cockpit arrangement. When they saw that we were serious and would hang tough, they gave us a phone number in Washington, D.C. to ask for help obtaining the funds to rearrange the cockpit. We made a classified call and the person on the other end of the line listened and said, “I will tell the Skunk Works (SW) to do as you say”.

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

‘The person I was talking too was Tom Jones and he was in the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) program “D” office in Washington.


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 and Born into the Wilde Blue Yonder 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.

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