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SR-71 Blackbird RSO tells the story of the North Pole Mission he and his pilot flew the Night Before Christmas to spy on Soviets setting up acoustic sensors to track US submarines

By Linda Sheffield Miller
Dec 24 2021
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‘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,’ Colonel Richard Sheffield, SR-71 Blackbird RSO.

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. Dad‘s book was very close to getting published, but it is on hold right now.

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.

SR-71 RSO tells the story of when he and his pilot were able to land their crippled Blackbird after it experienced a catastrophic engine failure while flying at Mach 2.88 at 68,000 feet
SR-71 RSO Butch Sheffield

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.

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.

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

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) Facebook Page Habubrats for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.

Photo credit: Linda Sheffield Miller and

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird model
This model is available in multiple sizes from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

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Linda Sheffield Miller

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.

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