SR-71 pilot tells the story of when a KC-135Q crew flew through a thunderstorm with their tanker’s throttles frozen to refuel its Blackbird

SR-71 pilot recalls when a KC-135Q crew flew through a thunderstorm with their tanker’s throttles frozen to refuel his Blackbird

By Linda Sheffield Miller
Dec 2 2023
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The KC-135Q

It’s impossible to overemphasise the essential role played by the KC-135Q tanker crews, without whom successful prosecution of the SR-71 Blackbird mission would have been impossible. As told by Paul F Crickmore in his book Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions (Revised Edition), it became apparent to Strategic Air Command (SAC) that the tanker force dedicated to supporting SR-71 operations would need to be expanded beyond the original 21 Q-model aircraft and in 1967 the decision was made to modify an additional 35 aircraft. Some 20 KC-135As from the 70th AREFS, 43rd BW at Little Rock AFB, Arkansas, and 15 from the 306th AREFS, 306th BW at McCoy AFB, Florida were therefore converted.

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.

The only crews qualified to refuel the SR-71 Blackbird

KC-135Q crews and their aircraft were unique from the rest of the Air Force in several ways. As explained by Col. Richard H. Graham, a former Blackbird pilot, in his book SR-71 The Complete Illustrated History of THE BLACKBIRD The World’s Highest, Fastest Plane, their aircrews in fact were the only one certified in Blackbird’s specific radio-silent rendezvous procedures, and their boom operators were the only ones qualified to refuel the SR-71. The Q-model tankers had special plumbing between their fuel tanks, allowing them to transfer JP-4 and JP-7 fuel between various tanks. Their engine could burn transfer JP-4 or JP-7 fuel. If the SR-71 landed somewhere JP-7 fuel was not available, the Q-model tankers flew in with the fuel and, through the use of transfer hoses on the ground, were able to refuel the SR-71.

No SR-71 story would be complete without KC-135Q

No story on the SR-71 would be complete without an understanding and appreciation of just how valuable the KC-135Q model tankers and their crews were to the successful and safe completion of every mission.

It suffices to say that an SR-71 never ran out of gas, as proved by the following story told by former Blackbird pilot David Peters.

‘There are many stories of the loyalty, bravery and reliability of our Q tanker guys. This is a great one for sure.

The story of the SR-71 Blackbird that pitched up and collided with a KC-135Q tanker during an air refueling over El Paso

KC-135Q crews bravery

‘Ed Bethart and I were flying a mission out of Kadena and it was definitely thunderstorm season. We were in heavy clouds headed to the tanker after takeoff and as we got DF and distance contact, we couldn’t see a thing. As we closed in, we had our 2000 ft altitude separation and at a mile had no contact. So, we told the guys to recheck their altimeter setting because we were coming up a thousand and in 1/2 mile. They confirmed their setting and altitude and airspeed so we moved up and in.

‘Still nothing.

‘Restated the whole thing and that we would come up 500 and close to a 1/4 mile. Still nothing then like bursting through a curtain there he was right where he said he was.’

Throttles frozen

He continues;

‘We closed for hook up and got contact. I noticed that I kept ducking my head beside something was hitting the windscreen. It was ice falling off the tanker.

‘I said “Hey Teddy (Ted Bittel) you have Ice coming off.” About that time Ed says “we are at 290 kts and descending.” Of course, Teddy could hear that on the boom interphone and he says “yes we have had the throttles frozen for the last half hour so we are trying to get the speed up for when you get heavier.” It all worked out and we got filled up.

KC-135R print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. KC-135R Stratotanker 161st Air Refueling Wing, 197th Air Refueling Squadron “Copperheads”, 63-8038 – Arizona Air National Guard – Sky Harbor ANG Base, AZ

‘However, the weather was so bad, when we tried to climb out, we hear very heavy turbulence, rain and lightning. Tried three times to accel but got violent unstarts each time. I tried going to manual inlets to open up and try to make it but it just couldn’t do it so we had to abort and return to Kadena.

A 20 lb block of ice

’In the debrief the maintenance guys came in and showed us that the wave guide antennas in the nose were gone totally eroded by the rain. Then Chief Kelly came in and dropped a 20 lb block of ice on the table. He said it came from the flight control mixer quadrant.’

Peters concludes;

‘So, another of those stories where circumstances were incredibly difficult to the point of losing the mission but not because our incredible Q guys weren’t there for us.’

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: U.S. Air Force

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird model
This model is available 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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