SR-71 recalls the tense mission over the Barents Sea where he spotted a Soviet MiG-31 scrambled to intercept his Blackbird

SR-71 pilot recalls the tense mission over the Barents Sea where he spotted a Soviet MiG-31 scrambled to intercept his Blackbird

By Linda Sheffield Miller
Jan 26 2024
Sponsored by: Osprey Publishing
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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.

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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.

SR-71 T-Shirts
CLICK HERE to see The Aviation Geek Club contributor Linda Sheffield’s T-shirt designs! Linda has a personal relationship with the SR-71 because her father Butch Sheffield flew the Blackbird from test flight in 1965 until 1973. Butch’s Granddaughter’s Lisa Burroughs and Susan Miller are graphic designers. They designed most of the merchandise that is for sale on Threadless. A percentage of the profits go to Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base. This nonprofit charity is personal to the Sheffield family because they are raising money to house SR-71, #955. This was the first Blackbird that Butch Sheffield flew on Oct. 4, 1965.

Soviet MiG-31 too close to for comfort

On Oct. 6, 1986, an SR-71 was just outside the territorial waters of Russia’s Murmansk area coastline. This was not the first time an SR-71 had flown along the coast of the Soviet Union and it wouldn’t be the last. It was the Blackbird’s job to take side looking pictures. The reason why the US were looking at the Soviet Union was they were looking for a nuclear submarine activity. However, this time a Soviet interceptor got a little too close for comfort. Ed Yeilding explained to Paul Crickmore, for his book Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions – The Missing Chaprters;

‘Flying straight toward each other in our supersonic jets, I was reminded of two gallant medieval knights galloping full speed toward each other, only I did not have a weapon,’ Ed Yeilding, former SR-71 Blackbird pilot recalls.

‘In the distance far ahead, at perhaps 100 miles, I could see a long, bright white Russian contrail flying directly towards us, but at much lower altitude.

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

‘I knew it must be a Soviet fighter, probably a MiG-31, then the newest Soviet interceptor.

‘I raised my periscope and saw too that we were leaving a long contrail and I knew the fighter could see our contrail as easily as I could see his.

Orders to fire missiles at USAF SR-71 Blackbird

‘I also assumed he had orders to fire his missiles if I was late with my turn and slipped over Soviet territorial waters to within 12nm of Soviet land, and I assumed the pilot would like nothing better than an opportunity to fire his missiles at an SR-71 Blackbird.

‘I believed the Soviet fighter would not fire his missiles as long as we stayed on our usual track, but I also knew he or his ground controllers could mistake our position as being closer than we actually were.

‘We had no defences like flares against heat-seeking missiles, but again, we believed that missile “probability of kill” was very low due to our high speed and altitude.

‘I was determined to fly the track as planned and get the pictures.

‘For survival, Curt [RSO Lt Col Curt Osterheld] and I depended on accurate navigation to keep us just outside Soviet territorial waters to prevent a launch, and we depended on our superior speed and altitude in case missiles were launched.

MiG-31

From my F-4 experience with intercepts and visual acuity, my best guess is that eight miles was his closest approach.

‘He appeared to run out of airspeed at the top of his contrail, at maybe 65,000ft or 10,000ft below us.

‘I saw his nose below the horizon and fall away. Curt and I stayed on course and got the pictures.

The MiG-31, the premier Soviet supersonic interceptor

“During my three years of flying overseas reconnaissance missions, I frequently saw contrails far below of potentially hostile fighters, but that day, above the Arctic Circle over the Barents Sea, was the only time I saw a Soviet fighter get close enough that I could actually see metal, though barely larger than a dot and only because our routine track was predictable. Back at Mildenhall, during our debriefing, our intelligence officer told us, with near certainty, that the interceptor was a MiG-31, the premier Soviet supersonic interceptor at that time.”

Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions – The Missing Chaprters is published by Osprey Publishign and is available to order here.

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

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

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and  Dmitriy Pichugin via Wikimedia Commons


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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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