SR-71 Pilot tells the story of when his Blackbird flew So Fast that He and his RSO arrived at Beale AFB almost a Day Before They Left Kadena AB

SR-71 pilot recalls when he set 13 acres of Maryland on fire by dumping fuel after one engine exploded during his last Blackbird flight

By Linda Sheffield Miller
Mar 17 2024
Share this article

The SR-71 Blackbird

In the 1960’s, the US Air Force (USAF) developed the SR-71 Blackbird, a plane that could travel more than 3 times as fast as the sound produced by its own engines.

Throughout its nearly 24-year career, the SR-71 spy plane remained the world’s fastest and highest-flying operational aircraft. Flying at Mach 3+ from 80,000 feet, it could survey 100,000 square miles of Earth’s surface per hour. And in the off chance an enemy tried to shoot it down with a missile, all the Blackbird had to do was speed up and outrun it.

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.

Its engineering was so cutting edge that even the tools to build the SR-71 needed to be designed from scratch.

What it’s like to fly the world’s fastest plane

Spencer Hall interviewed for SBNation former SR-71 Blackbird pilot Rick McCrary about what it’s like to fly the world’s fastest plane.

McCrary explained;

‘You waddle out there in your spacesuit, carrying your little cooler because it gets quite hot in that spacesuit. You go out to a van with some La-Z-Boys in it, these big recliners, and they drive you out to the airplane. It’s sitting there with all the cables hooked up to it, just like a space launch. It’s outgassing stuff, people are checking it, and then people start unhooking it and leaving and then it’s just you and the crew chief. You get into the seat, close the hatch, and you’re in your cocoon.

‘Startup was also a unique thing. It had this special fuel, because the temperatures during flight got up to over 600 degrees Fahrenheit when you’re at speed. The worry is that normal fuel, which you want to explode quickly during flight and have a low flashpoint, well…you wanted the exact opposite with the Blackbird. You’re carrying so much fuel that the last thing you want to worry about is it self-igniting.

Join this SR-71 Blackbird driver for a top secret recoinnassance mission over North Korea
A Boeing KC-135Q Stratotanker refueling an SR-71

‘You’d burn 80,000 pounds of fuel in about an hour and twenty minutes. That’s a lot of gas. You’re on the boom a lot, and that was why in-flight refueling experience was such a critical part of the screening process. You didn’t have a lot of time to do it, and you had to get it right the first time. Three refuelings was common, but on longer missions you’d refuel six or eight times. Those were long days.

Last flight on the SR-71 Blackbird

‘You’d light up the afterburner right after that first refueling, and take it to full power for the next hour. That’s pretty amazing, because no other plane can fly in full afterburner continuously. All other planes have either a three minute limit, or five minute limit on that, but you’d be going at full afterburner for an hour, hour and a half.’

When Hall asked McCrary if he remembered when his last SR-71 Blackbird flight took place, he answered;

‘The answer is kind of an interesting yes and no. There came the time to move on, and we had a good deal. We got to take it to the National Air Show in Washington, DC and put it on display there. That was going to be our last flight.

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

Setting 13 acres of Maryland on fire during last flight on the SR-71 Blackbird

‘As we took off from there and came back around for a pass, the right engine exploded. We had to dump gas, and set about thirteen acres of Maryland on fire as we did that. That was kind of interesting, just spewing flaming fuel and titanium pieces around.’

McCrary explained that this wasn’t rural Maryland;

‘Actually, we were pointed at the White House out of Andrews Air Force Base. It was funny listening back to the voice tape because I start by saying “Well, we’ll go out over the bay here and dump this fuel.” About thirty seconds later I say “Screw it” and just dump it. We defoliated southern Maryland, but we got it back on the ground, which was great. After all that happened, I absolutely remember shutting it down. My legs started shaking uncontrollably with the adrenaline from it all when I knew it was over with. My co-pilot never flew again, either.’

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: Lockheed Martin and U.S. Air Force


Share this article

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.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share this article


Share this article
Share this article

Always up to date! News and offers delivered directly to you!

Get the best aviation news, stories and features from The Aviation Geek Club in our newsletter, delivered straight to your inbox.

Error: Contact form not found.


Share this article
Back to top
My Agile Privacy
This website uses technical and profiling cookies. Clicking on "Accept" authorises all profiling cookies. Clicking on "Refuse" or the X will refuse all profiling cookies. By clicking on "Customise" you can select which profiling cookies to activate. In addition, this site installs Google Analytics in version 4 (GA4) with anonymous data transmission via proxy. By giving your consent, the data will be sent anonymously, thus protecting your privacy. We and our selected ad partners can store and/or access information on your device, such as cookies, unique identifiers, browsing data. You can always choose the specific purposes related to profiling by accessing the advertising preferences panel, and you can always withdraw your consent at any time by clicking on "Manage consent" at the bottom of the page.

List of some possible advertising permissions:

You can consult: our list of advertising partners, the Cookie Policy and the Privacy Policy.
Warning: some page functionalities could not work due to your privacy choices