SR-71 Blackbird

SR-71 pilot explains why the F-15 radar couldn’t see the Blackbird during Eagle Bait sorties

‘One of the interesting discoveries from the Eagle Bait was that F-15s couldn’t even find us when everything was shut down and we told them exactly where we were,’ Dave Peters, SR-71 Blackbird pilot.

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The SR-71, unofficially known as the “Blackbird,” is a long-range, advanced, strategic reconnaissance aircraft developed from the Lockheed A-12 and YF-12A aircraft.

No reconnaissance aircraft in history has operated in more hostile airspace or with such complete impunity than the SR-71 Blackbird. It is the fastest aircraft propelled by air-breathing engines. The Blackbird’s performance and operational achievements placed it at the pinnacle of aviation technology developments during the Cold War.

The Blackbird was designed to operate at extreme velocities and altitudes: in fact, from 80,000 feet, it could survey 100,000 square miles of Earth’s surface per hour. Thus, achieving a radar lock on it was extremely difficult for any hostile fighter.

Nevertheless, according to former Blackbird driver Col. Richard H. Graham, USAF (Ret.), tells in his book The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird: The Illustrated Profile of Every Aircraft, Crew, and Breakthrough of the World’s Fastest Stealth Jet, there were two fighters that could achieve (simulated) SR-71 kills, but only under certain conditions. “Don [Don Emmons was Graham Reconnaissance System Officer or RSO, the Blackbird back seater] and I, as well as many other crewmembers, had flown numerous ‘Tomcat Chase’ and ‘Eagle Bait’ sorties against our best fighters – the Navy’s F-14s and the Air Force’s F-15s. We flew the SR-71 to provide the fighters practice at finding, tracking, locking on, intercepting, and simulated firing of their sophisticated F-14 Phoenix missiles and the F-15’s Sparrow missiles at a high altitude, high speed target. The Tomcat Chase missions were flown over the Pacific Ocean and Eagle Bait missions in the Nellis AFB training area, north of Las Vegas, Nevada.”

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Graham continues. “To maximize scarce, high altitude/high-speed intercept practice for the fighters against the SR-71, we stacked the deck in their favor to avoid a multitude of missed intercepts, and consequently, wasted time. The intercepts were conducted in a very controlled environment, favoring a successful outcome by the fighters. […] Even under these highly controlled flying conditions, the F-14s and F-15s had extreme difficulty achieving a satisfactory SR-71 kill.”

American fighter pilots were able to lock on the SR-71 only after the Blackbird crew turned off their defensive countermeasures.

It was just about impossible to achieve a lock on the SR-71 unless she was injured.

SR-71 pilot Dave Peters adds some interesting and hilarious details.

‘One of the interesting discoveries from those missions, especially the Eagle Bait, was that they couldn’t even find us when everything was shut down and we told them exactly where we were. It was then realized that the F-15 had a speed gate on their radar at 1500 kts. We were casually warping along from 1850 to 2000. So, for them, we didn’t exist. We flew them fairly regularly from about 82 and they were still doing them after I retired in 86. We flew the Eagle Bait with the F-15s and Tomcat Chase with the F-14s. The 14s could find us but they couldn’t do anything until we modified and gave them times, route of flight, speed and altitude beforehand so they could have a pre-planned setup. The 15s didn’t do that well for quite some time.

‘Another mission we flew that was interesting was to come in over the California coast at speed and altitude to give the air traffic controllers an idea of what they would see on a space shuttle approach.

‘There was some animosity at first with both the Eagles and the Tomcats because they kept accusing us of not showing up. It was fun in the vain as the LA speed story, except it’s true, because we were on the same frequency with them and could listen to all the bitching because we didn’t show up. They got a little huffy because nobody told them we weren’t coming.’

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

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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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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  • During the Vietnam War the Navy kept at least 2 fighters airborne in the northern Gulf of Tonkin 24/7/365 flying a mission called BARCAP(Barrier Combat Air Patrol) as part of the first line of defense for the carrier(s) to the south operating on Yankee Station and sometimes Dixie Station. The other part of the first line of defense was provided by a heavily armed guided missile cruiser, radio callsign "Red Crown" whose Air Intercept Controllers(AICs) controlled the fighters and any others operating in the northern Gulf.

    The BARCAP was usually a very boring mission of drilling around in a racetrack pattern east of communist North Vietnam and south of the island of Hainan owned by communist China for several hours until relieved on station by another section(2 aircraft) of fighters.

    I was leading a section of F-4Bs on BARCAP one bright severe clear Chamber of Commerce day when "Red Crown" gave us a heads up call of a friendly who would be coming at us from the north. That could only mean one thing. An SR-71 would be exiting Chinese airspace from over Hainan Island coming right over us.

    We were cruising around saving gas at about 25,000 feet. I turned us toward the north to see if we could pick him up on radar and possibly see him as he passed overhead. After running the antenna up in elevation as far as it would go my RIO was able to paint a target and quickly locked it up.

    I watched in amazement as the Vc circle which told us the relative closing velocity of the target started rapidly winding up far higher than I had ever seen it before. Then the B trace, which indicated the target's position relative to the nose of our aircraft, began to dither back and forth rapidly before slamming to the side of the scope and the screen went completely black. We never could get it to work again.

    We thought we could at least see it fly overhead as it passed us. Nope. Too high, even for us to see with the naked eye. I had once seen another aircraft at 56 nautical miles verified by radar so I knew my eyes weren't the problem.

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