Flying the SR-71 with just one engine in full afterburner was Blackbird aircrews’ most dangerous operation. SR-71 pilots explain why.

Flying the SR-71 with just one engine in full afterburner was Blackbird aircrews’ most dangerous operation. SR-71 pilots explain why.

By Linda Sheffield Miller
Jan 21 2024
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The SR-71 Blackbird

The SR-71 spy plane, the most advanced member of the Blackbird family that included the A-12 and YF-12, was designed by a team of Lockheed personnel led by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, then vice president of Lockheed’s Advanced Development Company Projects, commonly known as the “Skunk Works” and now a part of Lockheed Martin. The Blackbird completed its first flight on Dec. 22, 1964.

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.

The SR-71 was designed to cruise at “Mach 3+,” just over three times the speed of sound or more than 2,200 miles per hour and at altitudes up to 85,000 feet.

SR-71 Blackbird flying with just one engine in full afterburner

Taken on Nov. 1, 1981 by US Air Force (USAF) Scene Camera Operator Ken Hackman, the interesting photos in this post feature an SR-71 Blackbird flying with just one engine in full afterburner, using just one rudder.

Why is that?

‘That is what we called a “single-engine go around,”’ says Stormy Boudreaux, SR-71 Blackbird pilot. ‘It was a practiced emergency procedure. It simulated what you had to do if you were making a single engine approach to land and for a variety of reasons something made the runway or the landing impossible so you “went around” on only one engine. The tremendous thrust with one engine in full afterburner and the other in idle was eye-opening! To counter the yaw from that engine required full rudder as well as banking the aircraft into the good engine in order to maintain your flight direction down the runway.

Flying the SR-71 with just one engine in full afterburner was Blackbird aircrews’ most dangerous operation. SR-71 pilots explain why.

‘Most twin engine aircraft have to do something similar but it’s darn right frightening the first time you try it in the SR-71. That one engine in AB is really pushing the nose around trying to turn the jet away from that engine and the amount of bank angle when at low speed makes you glad you are strapped tightly in the seat. It’s almost a knife edge pass!’

Single engine go around

Boudreaux is echoed by David Peters, another SR-71 pilot.

‘As Stormy said the picture[s] indicate a single engine go around. Thrust was never an issue. What became imperative was the ability to point the airplane. Under most conditions full opposite rudder and a slight bank into the operating engine was enough. By under certain conditions other factors came into play. Minimum control speed being most important.

‘We had a couple of missions out of Mildenhall that went hot to the tankers. That required a heavy takeoff using a 65,000-pound yo-yo fuel load. In the winter time with freezing temperatures in England min control speed was a huge factor. Once the burners lit if you lost an engine on takeoff once the burners were lit your only option was to eject. Why you ask.

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

Blackbird aircrews’ most dangerous operation

‘Well the runway there is only 8,000 feet. There was so much thrust developed in the cold, heavy air climate that your speed combined with gross weight would not allow you to abort since you couldn’t stop the airplane. There was plenty of thrust available to fly on one engine but there was so much thrust you could not control it below min control speed which in those cases was generally around 260 knots. So, the only thing you could do was pull both engines to idle pop the chute and eject.

‘I always felt that was perhaps our most dangerous operation.’

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

Photo credit: Scene Camera Operator Ken Hackman / U.S. Air Force

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird model
This model is available in multiple sizes 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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