SR-71 Blackbird

Once an F-101 pilot tried to race against an SR-71. He gave up when the Blackbird’s RSO asked him how fast his Voodoo could climb above 80,000 feet.

‘On takeoff roll, an F-101 came upon our wing; he was going to race us whether we wanted to or not,’ Richard “Butch” Sheffield, SR-71 Blackbird Reconnaissance Systems Officer.

Throughout its nearly 24-year career, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird Mach 3-strategic reconnaissance aircraft 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.

So it comes as no surprise if, thanks to its astonishing flight characteristics, the aircraft has set numerous speed and altitude records throughout its career.

The following story comes from my Dad’s unpublished book, “The Very First” by Colonel Richard “Butch” Sheffield, SR-71 Blackbird Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO).

‘Sometime, early in the program, in January 1967, I believe, we aborted and landed at Buckley Air National Guard (ANG) Base near Denver. The base was home to an F-101 squadron. The F-101 was an interceptor assigned to defend the US in case of war. The fighter community considered it a “hot” aircraft.

‘After we got out of our pressure suits and arranged for the take-off the next day, we went to the Officer’s Club wearing loaned flying suits and our white pressure suit boots. The fighter pilots who came around wanted to know all about our aircraft, like; how fast, how high, and the rate of climb. What they really wanted was to race us as we climbed out after takeoff. We declined all offers of information and races.

‘The next day, on takeoff roll, an F-101 came upon our wing; he was going to race us whether we wanted to or not. Apparently, the F-101 had been orbiting the field just waiting for our take-off.

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

‘The SR could climb fast but was no match for the F-101 at those altitudes. He stayed right on our wing up to 25,000 feet where we leveled off to hit a tanker that we always did. About the time we leveled off, someone from the F-101 came on UHF and said, “You guys aren’t so hot.” So I replied, “How fast can you climb above 80,000 feet?” The F-101 made a quick exit.’

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

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

This model is available in multiple sizes from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.
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.

View Comments

  • The SR-71 flies a little higher speed than 500 Kts at lower levels. It does not really gain higher mach speeds until it is hitting 50,000 plus feet. So at 39 thousand feet, mach 1.4, 50,000 mach 1.8, 55,000 mach 2.0, 58 thousand mach 2.2, 62,000 mach 2.4, 67,000 mach 2.7, 70,000 mach 2.9, 72 thousand, mach 3 plus. These numbers are based on average temperatures and winds which can affect how the SR-71 preforms.

  • Actually the English Electric Lightning could climb higher than the SR71 and there’s an account of a Blackbird pilot being startled when a Lightning zoomed past him at 80,000 feet.

  • He won't, because the electric lightning had a top speed and max altitude that was lower than the blackbird.

  • Besides the MiG-31 and the JAS-37 Viggen, there are persistent stories about the gun camera footage from a Royal Air Force English Electric Lightning that bounced the SR-71 that set the trans-Atlantic speed record on its way into the Farnborough Air Show in 1974. (The RAF knew its flight plan in advance, so they sent a particularly "hot" Lightning F.3 out over the Atlantic: it tanked up, climbed on a ballistic trajectory, and bounced the SR-71 from above and behind. Much sniggering allegedly ensued, behind closed doors.)
    The Lightning was a world speed record holder in its day, and had a ridiculous climb rate and service ceiling -- the RAF admitted to "over 60,000 feet" in the 1960s: they made intercepts on U-2s on a regular basis, and are confirmed to have hit 88,000 feet on ballistic profiles:

  • In 1984 a Lt. Hale flying an English Electric Lightning F.3 climbed to 88,000 feet, records show. This was in something called a ballistic climb. The records don't record any encounter with a Blackbird, but there is an earlier mention of a U2 crew being startled at 66,000 ft.

  • Fairly certain andygm is referring to an interception of a U2 (the Other black spy plane) in 1984, during which a lightning (affectionately known as Big Mother) climbed to 88000ft, the U2 pilot was allegedly amazed at the performance of the English fighter.

  • I don’t know about a SR71 pilot being startled but on a NATO exercise in 1984 RAF pilot Flt Lt Mike Hale reportedly zoom climbed his Lightning to 88,000 ft.
    And RAF chief examiner Brian Carroll got to 87,300 ft over Saudi Arabia.
    The Lightning used to intercept the U2 plane technically it could.
    And it’s the sort of thing the RAF would do just for fun.

  • Having said that, there is a big difference between getting up there and staying up there.The lightning could not stay at those altitude’s.

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