Cold War Era

Former SR-71 Blackbird crew members share their most interesting stories

“You haven’t been lost till you’ve been lost at Mach 3 because for every minute that you don’t know where you are, you’re 35 miles further away from where you think you’re supposed to be!,” Frank Stampf, former SR-71 Blackbird RSO

The following stories appear in John Altson book The Black Line.

Four Concurrent Emergencies on Landing

Because SR-71 air refueling was both difficult and dangerous, Blackbird pilot Lieutenant Colonel Bredette (BC) Thomas welcomed an assignment that did not require refueling. It should have been easy – A 45-minute flight over North Korea then back to Okinawa. It was his first tour in Okinawa and he had been an SR-71 pilot for about one year.

Russian and Chinese trawlers patrolled the seas near the base at Okinawa and carefully monitored all U.S. flights. Because of the nature of this particular mission, it was decided that the flight occur with a higher than normal load of 65,000 pounds of fuel, and under radio silence.

BC encountered an engine inlet problem resulting in a series of uncontrollable “unstarts” and had to abort the mission, returning to Okinawa after just twenty minutes and still with 15,000 pounds of fuel. This was just the beginning of BC’s problems. Because he returned to Okinawa much earlier than expected, the crew responsible for maintaining the hangar did not have time to clean up the fuel slick on the hangar’s floor.

An SR-71 always lands with an eleven-degree nose-high attitude, deploys a drag parachute, and then eases the nose down for a smooth landing. On this particular landing, however, the nose went down, and the plane started to vacillate left and right and knock out the right generator. Further compounding these difficulties, and because BC’s arrival was way ahead of schedule, the crews did not have time to clear away the “arresting cable” on the runway. BC tried to slow down but could not; he crossed over the arresting cable and blew out two of the right tires.

The normal recovery procedure was to go into the hangar with the engines running and then cut them off. He got into the hangar at three MPH and, because of the oil slick, could not stop the plane. He tried the brakes, to no avail. BC had two seconds to maneuver the airplane and decide whether or not to cut off the engines. He forced a strong right turn and the aircraft came to a halt, unharmed.

Colonel Frank Stampf’s most interesting story

SR-71 RSO (Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Colonel Frank Stampf’s most interesting story took place flying out of Okinawa. Frank and his pilot Gil Bertelson had just completed their compulsory ten to twelve months of crew training and were slated to fly their first night operational mission over the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ); it was a “bow-tie” (double loop) mission over the Korean peninsula, scheduled to make several passes over the DMZ.

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

They were on the east side of the peninsula, cruising at Mach 3 on a completely moonless and black night. Gil guided the airplane into a 33-degree bank to the right when they spotted what appeared to be thousands of lights below. This was most unusual because the Korean peninsula was normally pitch black. The navigation systems appeared to be working well, but the lights were a complete mystery and a bit unnerving to a new crew flying very close to some not-so-friendly territory.

They successfully completed the mission, landed the aircraft, got debriefed by the Intel Officers, and found out that what they seen were huge numbers of small Korean fishing vessels – thousands of sampans with their lanterns lit that gave the appearance of a spread-out city …. something they were NOT supposed to be seeing at that particular moment in time!

Frank was known among his SR-71 squadron mates for the saying “You haven’t been lost till you’ve been lost at Mach 3!” Additionally, he came up with this corollary to the quote: “….because for every minute that you don’t know where you are, you’re 35 miles further away from where you think you’re supposed to be!”

The Black Line is available to order here.

Photo credit: Lockheed Martin and U.S. Air Force

Artwork courtesy of

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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