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The SR-71 Blackbird
The SR-71 spy plane, the most advanced member of the Blackbird family that included the A-12 and YF-12, was designed by a team of Lockheed personnel led by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, then vice president of Lockheed’s Advanced Development Company Projects, commonly known as the “Skunk Works” and now a part of Lockheed Martin. The Blackbird completed its first flight on Dec. 22, 1964.
The SR-71 was designed to cruise at “Mach 3+,” just over three times the speed of sound or more than 2,200 miles per hour and at altitudes up to 85,000 feet.
In 1969, on the Night Before Christmas, my father Colonel Richard “Butch” Sheffield, SR-71 Blackbird Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO), flew a North Pole night mission. To honor him I’m going to share this story.
This is the Night Before Christmas as told by a Habu.
Late In 1969, shortly after I was crewed with Bob Spencer, we were tasked to fly a night mission to the North Pole. Night missions were very rare in those days because of St. Martins crash (summer of 1967) at night when navigation system failed. We were one of the most experienced SR crews and we were told that the Russians were doing something with our submarines at night at a station they had built on the ice near the North Pole.
It was believed that our Side Looking, High Resolution Radar System could gain valuable intelligence by spying on the unsuspecting Russians in the middle of the night. I found out a few years ago what the Russians were doing, setting up acoustic sensors so they could track our submarines under the ice cape.
We launched from Beale at night, flew north to Alaska and refueled over the central part on a Northern heading. Once we were full of fuel, we lit the afterburners and climbed to about seventy five-thousand feet heading north to the ice station. The tanker was briefed to continue to fly north in case we lost an engine. There was no place to land and our emergency procedure was to turn around 180 degrees and do a head on rendezvous with the tanker on one engine.
As we departed Alaska heading North with the after burners blazing, I looked out the window at the barren land and ice. I could see well because of star light. We had no moon that night. The thought came to my mind, “this is really risky business,” and if anything goes wrong they will never find us. Nothing went wrong, I turned on the Side Looking Radar (SLR), looked at the location and took the images. Returned to Alaska and refueled from the tanker and returned to Beale.
SR-71 Blackbird over North Pole the Night Before Christmas
The SLR had a great resolution plus the speed of the SR traveling three thousand feet per second caused the antenna to believe it was much longer. The SLR could image out to eighty miles to the side of the SR so if the site was manned they would not hear our sonic boom. The CIA found out that the station was not manned during the worst part of winter. When not manned, the CIA landed a few people by parachute to find out what was going on at the station. They found everything to include code books. The men were recovered by being snatched up into a low flying aircraft.
This event has been documented by book and a movie.
The night of the mission, the family had gone to bed at the regular time. I got out of bed, went to the flight line, flew the mission and returned home to the bed. The next morning as the family sat around the table having breakfast before school, I thought to myself, no one would believe where I was last night, the North Pole right before Christmas?
Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Twitter Page Habubrats SR-71 and Facebook Page Born into the Wilde Blue Yonder for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.
Photo credit: Linda Sheffield Miller and NASA