Throughout its nearly 24-year career, the SR-71 remained the world’s fastest and highest-flying operational aircraft
In 1976, it was a different time. The Cold War with the Soviet Union was in full swing and Americans were standing in line to buy gas.
That year was also the country’s bicentennial birthday. To celebrate, officials decided to attempt to break some records with an aircraft known as the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.
The SR-71, unofficially known as the “Blackbird,” was 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 Jan. 1966.
On Jul. 28, 1976, retired Maj. Gen. Eldon Joersz, the pilot, and retired Lt. Col. George Morgan, the reconnaissance systems officer (RSO), set the world absolute speed record for jet-powered airplanes with a speed of 2,193 mph.
The record still stands today.
“We never dreamed, I guess we never gave it much thought, how long the record would last,” Joersz said.
Today, that plane sits in the Robins Air Force Base Museum of Aviation, and for three days, the museum hosted Joersz and Morgan, and 12 other crew members and pilots who were part of the SR-71 program. About 300 people also visited the museum on Jul. 30 for a public event commemorating the 40-year anniversary of the record-setting flight.
“The way we look at it, we represent the crew force, we represent the airplane and we really represent America,” Joersz said.
Both men were able to get back in the cockpit of their famed aircraft for a while during their visit to the museum.
“It’s as impressive to me now as when I first saw it and flew it. Every time I flew it was my favorite memory,” Morgan said.
There were only 85 pilots and RSOs who were trained to fly the SR-71 operationally. Another 40 or so were trained to fly test flights for the plane, said Buz Carpenter, a former SR-71 pilot who is now a docent at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum annex in Chantilly, Virginia.
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.
Tom Joyce, an instrument and inlets technician on the SR-71, also attended the event and said one of his fondest memories was hearing the aircraft crank with its start cart containing two 450-cubic-inch engines.
Joyce, who worked on the SR-71 from 1975 to 1988, said he remembered the first time he went out to see the Blackbird.
“It was amazing. It doesn’t look like an airplane and then they put astronaut suits on the pilots,” he said, smiling.
Most of the missions the Blackbird flew are still classified.
“Those reconnaissance operations are what brought peace and what gave some teeth to the American front during that Cold War … Thank you from a country that could not have won the Cold War without your efforts,” Col. John Cooper, the 461st Air Control Wing commander, said during the July 30 event.
The U.S. Air Force retired its fleet of SR-71s on Jan. 26, 1990, because of a decreasing defense budget and high costs of operation.
The SR-71 came to Robins in 1990, with more than 2,885 hours of air time in its career.
Source: SR-71 pilots, crew relive absolute speed record By Angela Woolen, 78th Air Base Wing Public Affairs and U.S. Air Force; Photo credit: U.S. Air Force