On Oct. 13 Oct, 1973, Pilot Jim Shelton and RSO Gary Coleman in SR-71 Blackbird #979, departed Griffiss AFB, NY on the first of a series of flights to the Middle East. After 11.13 hours of flight time involving 6 refuelings and more than five hours of flight above Mach 3.0, Jim Shelton landed #979 back at Griffiss. The “Photo Take” was highly successful and provided Defense Analysts and the President of the United States with information about the actual Syrian military situation.
The Yom Kippur War SR-71 operation provided a series of 11.4 hour round-robin sorties to the Middle East. Plans were originally made to fly these flights from Beale AFB to the Middle East and recover at Mildenhall, United Kingdom. Upon arrival at Mildenhall to set up recovery operations, Colonel Patrick Halloran, 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing Commander, was informed that the British Government was having second thoughts about allowing the SR-71 to land in England.
They could not land at Mildenhall.
The following is in Jim Shelton‘s own words, He sent this to me Linda Sheffield Miller a few years ago.
LTC. Gary Coleman (my RSO) and I (LTC James Shelton) were in the Standardization Office at Beale AFB, CA (we were the senior crew) and received a phone call from Col. Pat Halloran (the wing commander) to come to his office. When we arrived there he said, we were selected for a very important mission. It was to take off from Beale AFB and fly through the Middle East and recover at Mildenhall AB England, for an 8 ½ hour mission. Our State Department needed to know how the Yom Kippur War was going. We could not move a Spy Satellite out of the Russian orbit to cover the War area, so the SR-71 got the call. The mission was to A/R locally, proceed to Nova Scotia for the second A/R, then proceed west of Portugal for the third A/R, then proceed through the Mediterranean abeam the island of Crete for the fourth A/R, then turn right going south and follow the Nile River south of Cairo, then make a 270 degree turn to the right around Cairo crossing the Nile River again, creating a large X over the battle area and return to the Crete A/R area and land at Mildenhall. Gary and I then went to the mission planning area and studied the route of flight and emergency landing fields. I even went to the flight simulator to practice landing approaches into Mildenhall. We were told to go into crew rest and return for an 11:00 PM Mission Briefing. We returned for our briefing and received a weather and intelligence briefing. I remember the intel briefer advising us to not be surprised if the Egyptians or the Israelis shoot at us because our government has not told either country that we would be flying over their areas. At about the time to go get into our pressure suits for flight, the mission was canceled and we were told to go home and get back into crew rest.
The next day I went into operation and found out the reason the mission was canceled, was that when Col. Halloran and the maintenance recovery team landed at Mildenhall AB the British said, “the SR-71 could not land there, because they relied on Middle East Oil that they wanted no part in helping us with the mission”. I was told that we would fly to Griffiss AFB that evening and would fly our mission out of Griffiss and return to Griffiss. Now instead of an 8 ½ hour mission to just went to 11 hours and 20 minutes with 6 A/Rs. The reason Griffiss was selected as the base to fly from was that the test force’s SR-71was scheduled to fly out of Griffiss the next week to conduct low-altitude electronic evaluation missions on some new equipment, so there was a tank car with our special JP-7 fuel on a siding on base and a Lockheed maintenance team from Palmdale plant on the ground to support the test force mission.
Now the easiest mission changes for the mission planner to make was to have us fly subsonic from Griffiss to the Nova Scotia A/R and pick up the original route and then once we left the Crete A/R the second time we would reverse our route back to the Portugal A/R, then to the Nova Scotia A/R and return to Griffiss subsonic.
Gary and I took off about 6:30 PM to fly to Griffiss from Beale AFB. Little did Gary and I know that the mission planner drew a straight line from the end of the local A/R area to the holding fix for Griffiss. Normally, the mission planners will avoid heavily populated towns and cities but not tonight. En route to the holding fix, we flew south of Chicago and north of Indianapolis and I could see both cities as it was so clear. I told Gary that we must be creating a major sonic boom because the sky was so clear. Little known to us the second aircraft that was to follow us by 1 hour, was stopped on the runway and given another route avoiding populated areas to fly to the Griffiss holding fix, because there had been so many phone calls complaining about sonic booms and broken windows. The Air Force said they would investigate, but the next morning a professor in one of the northern states, said, “That a meteor must have created the sonic booms because it covered such a large area”. When this article came out in the local paper the Air Force stopped investigating.
As I approached the runway at Griffiss I turned on my landing light which shines down as we are landing with about 7 degrees nose up and unless I have clouds or the runway just below me I cannot see if the landing light is on. Just as I started my flare for landing I saw that the landing light was out, so I moved the switch to taxi light, which is not pointing down but straight ahead as the nose of the aircraft is on the pavement when taxing. The Lockheed maintenance personnel parked us and helped us get out of the cockpit. Well, the Base Commander was there to meet us and he said, “SAC headquarters said there was a Highly Classified Mission coming and supply whatever they needed. He said the mission must be very secret because I did not turn my landing light on until I was over the runway”. I did not want to break his bubble, so I did not tell him that the landing light was out. I told him that Col. Halloran and the maintenance team would arrive from England soon and that we need quarter and food for our team. Gary and I went into crew rest and prepared to fly in a day or two.
In the morning after landing, I went to the Flight Surgeon’s office to get 1 sleeping table so I could make sure I got plenty of rest before the long flight. He was not going to give me the 1 sleep table I requested, so I told him to call the Flight Surgeon’s office at Beale AFB as they will approve me getting 1 pill. He finally gave me my 1 pill without calling. In our crew rest window, I took my pill and it must have worked well as Gary said, “he knew my pilot was resting because my snoring woke him up”.
At the mission briefing, the weather man said, “We would have weather in the Nova Scotia area, but after that, the weather was good for the rest of the flight. We took off at about 11:00 PM. This would put us over the target area between 11:00 and 12:00 so the photo interpreters could determine the heights of objects by their shadows. Well, the weatherman was correct about the weather in the A/R area. The visibility was very close to our limit of 1 mile to conduct A/R’s (I don’t know anyone that did not press ahead to the tanker). Once on the tanker boom, it was so turbulent that the Stick Shaker started activating, and at that point, I strangled the control stick to make sure I would not be bounced off the boom. The weather improved as I finished refueling and climbing through 45,000 feet on my way to the Portugal A/R. The mission was planned to cruise at Mach 3.00 to make sure we have fuel enough for the mission. I had already flown a 10 ½-hour training sortie at Mach 3.00 and I was beat when I got out of the aircraft, because every time the Mach varied plus or missus by .02 Mach I would make a power adjustment, so on this flight, I let the Mach vary by .05 Mach before I would make a power adjustment. I knew I had to pace myself.
Once I made contact with the tanker at the Portugal A/R, the tanker pilot said that the Air Controller for Portugal keep advising him that there was an aircraft in his vicinity and did he see it, of course, he said, “ no contact”. Once we completed our A/R, we headed for the Mediterranean, I got a little hungry (I had 2 tubes of apricot paste) so I opened one. I forgot my science about pressure. The tube looks like a tube of toothpaste with a seal on the end. We are given a plastic tube (which fits into the feed port in our helmet) that screws onto the tube and as you make the final turn connecting the tube, it breaks the seal and the apricot begins to flow. As I said, forgot my science about pressures and altitudes”. The tubes are manufactured at Sea Level, but when we are flying at altitude, our cabin altitude is 26,000 feet, a considerable difference in pressure. Well, when I broke the seal on the tube food, I had an apricot spraying out like crazy, so I stuck the plastic tube into a pocket in my pressure suit to catch it. I only lost about 1/4th of the tube’s continence.
When I made contact with the tanker at the Crete A/R the tanker pilot said, “That the Air Traffic control at the base in Spain delayed his take-off 30 minutes, so when he arrived at the A/R point he only had time to make 1 orbit made contact”. Had I been about 2 minutes early, I may have missed the refueling and would have had to land in Crete. The tankers are normally at the A/R point 30 minutes before the scheduled A/R time. Well, we got our fuel and headed to the Nile River. Once we reached the river we were at Mach 3.15, the Egyptian SAM sites started tracking us for a short distance. I also saw some aircraft condensation trails far below but lost them and the tracking just before it was time to make my 270 degrees right turn around Cairo, when I straighten out the SAM site started tracking us again and as I headed N.E., I saw more contrails below me. I don’t know if they were Egyptian or Israel. Once I was out of the Israel area we started down toward the Crete A/R. Our tankers had to go to an air base in Turkey to fill up with our JP-7 fuel, but they could not fly an operational mission there, they had to go to the base in Spain, refuel, and then fly the operational mission from there.
From this Crete A/R, it back down the Mediterranean to the Portugal A/R and then on to the Nova Scotia A/R. From the first Nova Scotia to this one our filed flight plan stated we were Visual Flight Rules on Top, for almost 6 hours so no Air Traffic Control had any idea where we were going. At the final and 6th A/R at Nova Scotia, we went subsonic back to Griffiss AFB. The weather was clear at Griffiss so, I pushed the throttles up to military power (just before the After Burner range) to have the aircraft go Mach .98 to .99. This way I would use more fuel as I did not need the fuel to proceed to an alternate base, because of the clear weather. As I went from each Canadian Air Traffic center, the center would ask me what type aircraft we were in. This call was through me, so I responded “As filed”. Again at the next control center, they asked the same question and again I responded, “As filed”. When I got back on the ground, during the mission debriefing, I asked the mission planner what type of aircraft did you file our flight as? He said, “a KC-135”. Now it was clear why the Canadian Air Controller wanted to know what type of aircraft we were because a KC-135 is about a Mach .7 (7 or 8 miles a minute) aircraft and we were going Mach .98 (10 or 11 miles a minute).
Needless to say Gary and I were tired when we landed but adrenalin keep us going during the mission and it took me a while to unwind before I could take a nap. Within 4 days Admiral Moore (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) invited Gary and me to the Pentagon to say, “Thank you for a job well done”. We saw staffers carrying blown-up photos from our mission briefing other staff agencies. They showed destroyed or damaged tanks, guns, and other armaments. The State Department wanted to see the destroyed equipment as the U.S. promised to replace all the destroyed equipment.
Gary and I received a Distinguish Flying Cross for this mission due to the importance of the photo intelligence received and we were named the 15th Air Force Reconnaissance Crew for 1973.
This mission was declassified in the early 1990s.
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 and Lockheed Martin
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