SR-71 Blackbird

“NASA 831 do not light your afterburners!” The story of the SR-71B Blackbird that had an almost catastrophic fuel leak on a mission to perform a flyby at EAA Oshkosh

Upon their safe return to Dryden and exiting the SR-71B Blackbird, Meyer and Schneider donned a pair of Wisconsin “cheeseheads” they had carried with them from Milwaukee, much to the delight of all present.

During the 1990s two SR-71 Blackbird aircraft were used by NASA as testbeds for high-speed and high-altitude aeronautical research at Dryden. The aircraft included an SR-71A and SR-71B (the trainer version), loaned to NASA by the US Air Force (USAF).

In 1997 and 1998 the SR-71 carried the NASA/Lockheed Martin Linear Aerospike SR-71 Experiment (LASRE). The LASRE test apparatus was a half-span scale model of a lifting body with eight thrust cells of a linear aerospike engine, mounted on the back of an SR-71 aircraft during flight at high speeds and altitudes. Outfitted with the test fixture, the aircraft operated like a kind of flying wind tunnel that allowed engineers to gather aerodynamic data under realistic flight conditions.

On Aug. 2, 1997 the NASA SR-71B had to perform a flyby at EAA Oshkosh along with a KC-135. According to EAA Oshkosh website, the aim of the flyby was to represent the partnership of the USAF and NASA (then NACA) back in 1947 when the sound barrier was broken by then-Capt. Chuck Yeager flying the Bell X-1.

Jim Zazas recalls in a post appeared on Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Facebook Page Habubrats.

‘I was working on the EAA Oshkosh announcers stand that day (Saturday, August 2, 1997) and was on headset monitoring the airshow frequency. Lt. Col. Blair Bozek, a USAF SR-71 RSO, stood beside me on my right. Ed “Fast Eddie” Schneider, a NASA SR-71 LASRE project pilot, was the air boss. The late Walt Troyer was the narrator.

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‘Overhead, Rogers Smith piloted the SR-71B (NASA 831) with Bob Meyer, a NASA Flight Test Engineer, in the backseat. James “Smoke” Smolka piloted the accompanying F/A-18A lead and chase plane.

‘NASA’s original plan for that day was to have the KC-135 tanker depart Dryden and followed shortly thereafter by Rogers and Meyer in the SR-71B, then meet-up with Smolka in the F/A-18A over Lake Michigan to be refueled. Smolka was already pre-positioned in Milwaukee. Once he received word the SR-71B was airborne, Smolka would takeoff, join-up with the Blackbird and lead the Blackbird to the tanker while also performing safety plane duties.’

Zazas continues;

‘After the SR-71B had refueled over Lake Michigan, the plan called for the three aircraft making a couple photo passes over the crowd, with the SR-71B and the KC-135 simulating an air-to-air refueling, but with no actual contact and transfer of fuel. Rogers had planned to light the Blackbird’s left afterburner to simulate what SR-71 pilots do during an actual air-to-air refueling.

‘Afterwards, the SR-71B would leave the formation, climb to a much higher altitude, make a dramatic, high-speed pass over the EAA crowds far below, and return to Dryden. The F/A-18A and the KC-135 would return to Milwaukee, the latter dropping off its passengers to attend the EAA show.

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‘Dave Francey, the boom operator in the KC-135 tanker, made the initial call the Blackbird was leaking fuel from its left engine, but it was Smolka’s measured call to the Blackbird, “NASA 831 do not light your afterburners! Do not light your afterburners!” that caught everyone’s attention. Schneider, Smolka, the KC-135 crew and many other people coordinated swiftly and professionally to get Rogers, Meyer and the stricken Blackbird safely on the ground in Milwaukee eighty miles to the south of Oshkosh.’

As Francey explains on EAA Oshkosh website, the cause of the fuel leak was a failed fuel pump and thankfully the SR-71 pilot didn’t go into AB because it could have resulted in a catastrophic failure.

Zazas concludes;

‘Over the next nine days, the Blackbird was repaired, a new left engine was installed, and NASA 831 was cleared for a subsonic return flight to Dryden with Schneider piloting and Meyer in the backseat.

‘Upon their safe return to Dryden and exiting the Blackbird, Meyer and Schneider donned a pair of Wisconsin “cheeseheads” they had carried with them from Milwaukee, much to the delight of all present.’

Photo credit: NASA

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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