SR-71 pilot tells the story of when a KC-135Q crew flew through a thunderstorm with their tanker’s throttles frozen to refuel its Blackbird

Habu Pilot reveals why the Blackbird had to refuel after takeoff (it’s not because the SR-71 leaked fuel)

By Linda Sheffield Miller
May 7 2023
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No story on the SR-71 would be complete without an understanding and appreciation of just how valuable the KC-135Q model tankers and their crews were to the successful and safe completion of every mission.

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The SR-71, unofficially known as the “Blackbird,” is a long-range, advanced, strategic reconnaissance aircraft developed from the Lockheed A-12 and YF-12A aircraft. The first flight of an SR-71 took place on Dec. 22, 1964, and the first SR-71 to enter service was delivered to the 4200th (later 9th) Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., in January 1966. The US Air Force retired its fleet of SR-71s on Jan. 26, 1990.

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. On July 28, 1976, an SR-71 set two world records for its class — an absolute speed record of 2,193.167 mph and an absolute altitude record of 85,068.997 feet.

The SR-71 would be a very short-ranged aircraft were it not for air refueling, limited to around 2,000 NM. Multiple air refuelings extended the range of the aircraft to the limits of crew endurance. Many missions have exceeded 12,000 NM. Forward basing of the SR-71 and KC-135Q tankers permitted faster response, shorter range, shorter duration missions, fewer air refuelings, and greater overall efficiency.

KC-135Q crews and their aircraft were unique from the rest of the Air Force in several ways. Their aircrews in fact were the only one certified in Blackbird’s specific radio-silent rendezvous procedures, and their boom operators were the only ones qualified to refuel the SR-71. The Q-model tankers had special plumbing between their fuel tanks, allowing them to transfer JP-4 and JP-7 fuel between various tanks. Their engine could burn transfer JP-4 or JP-7 fuel. If the SR-71 landed somewhere JP-7 fuel was not available, the Q-model tankers flew in with the fuel and, through the use of transfer hoses on the ground, were able to refuel the SR-71. One of the best advantages of flying the Q-model tankers is that their crews did not have to be on twenty-four-hour alert status like the rest of the SAC’s tankers’ crew members.

Blackbird Pilot explains why the SR-71 had to refuel right after takeoff (and it’s not because it leaked fuel)

No story on the SR-71 would be complete without an understanding and appreciation of just how valuable the KC-135Q model tankers and their crews were to the successful and safe completion of every mission.

Actually most SR-71’s operational sorties started off with a refueling after takeoff.

“Many people believe we refueled after takeoff because the aircraft leaked fuel so profusely that we needed to fuel up quickly,” says Col. Richard H. Graham, a former Blackbird pilot, in his book SR-71 The Complete Illustrated History of THE BLACKBIRD The World’s Highest, Fastest Plane. “We had to refuel right after takeoff for only one reason, and it wasn’t because we leaked JP-7 fuel on the ground. Yes, the plane does leak fuel, but not enough to require refueling after takeoff.

“The JP-7 fuel reaches temperatures well over 300 degrees F. during Mach 3 cruise, making the fumes in each of the six fuel tanks very volatile and potentially explosive. The metal skin of the aircraft approaches 400 degrees F., adding to the volatility of the fuel inside the tanks. One of our aircraft limitations was a maximum speed of Mach 2.6 without an inert atmosphere inside the fuel tanks.

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“The aircraft had three liquid nitrogen Dewar flasks containing 260 liters of liquid nitrogen, located in the nose wheel well. The only way to ensure 100 percent inert atmosphere in each fuel tank was to refuel the plane inflight completely full of JP-7, allowing ambient air in each fuel tank to vent overboard. Once full of fuel, gaseous nitrogen would now dominate each fuel tank’s empty space above as it burned off JP-7. The nitrogen gas pressurized each fuel tank to 1.5 psi above ambient pressure and inerts the space above the heated fuel to prevent autogenous ignition. This is why we refueled after takeoff. Then we could safely accelerate beyond Mach 2.6.”

Graham concludes:

“There was one other way of achieving tank inerting, called a “Yo-Yo,” but this was a maintenance nightmare. A few of our missions required the SR-71 to accelerate to Mach 3+ right after takeoff with a 65,000-pound fuel load. The Yo-Yo procedure had the crew chief completely refuel the plane to full tanks of 80,000 pounds of fuel. Then, with the nitrogen pressurization system working, they de-fueled 15,000 pounds of JP-7, ending up with a 65,000 pound fuel load and a plane that was capable of going immediately to Mach 3+.”

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Tony Landis Lockheed

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird model
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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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