SR-71 pilot tells the story of when he and his RSO set four speed records flying from L.A. to D.C. in less than 65 minutes during their final flight in the Blackbird

SR-71 pilot tells the story of when he and his RSO set four speed records flying from L.A. to D.C. in less than 65 minutes during their final flight in the Blackbird

By Dario Leone
Aug 22 2021
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‘My excitement in flying the highest and fastest plane ever was mixed with some sadness on this day because it was our final flight in the Blackbird,’ Ed Yeilding, SR-71 pilot.

On Mar. 6, 1990 US Air Force (USAF) Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird, serial number 61-7972, flown by Lieutenant Colonel Raymond E. (“Ed”) Yeilding and Lieutenant Colonel Joseph T. (“J.T.”) Vida established four National Aeronautic Association and three Fédération Aéronautique Internationale speed records during on its final flight from Air Force Plant 42 (PMD) at Palmdale, California to Washington Dulles International Airport where it was turned over to the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum.

Ed Yeilding recalls the record breaking flight in an interesting article for Auburn Engineer e-magazine and appeared also on Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Facebook Page Habubrats.

Lockheed SR-71 61-7972
The Lockheed SR-71 SN 61-7972

‘I remember that day so well – March 6, 1990. I got up at 1 a.m., got to my briefing at 2 a.m., and into the suit and onto the flight line at 3:45. We planned our takeoff for 4:30 – it was 7:30 in Washington – from Palmdale in the company of a small crowd that gathered for the last flight. The first thing that we had to do was air refuel – the routine was to take off with half a load of fuel for safety, so we’d be light enough to climb in case an engine failed just after lift-off. At 27,000 feet, we did that, with a couple of KC-135Q tankers over the Pacific Ocean. Then, with a full load, we turned east, lit the afterburners, and had a 200-mile running start as we accelerated. Fuel was very tight for the coast-to-coast flight, so we planned to cross the West Coast accelerating through Mach 2.5 at 63,000 feet, before reaching our cruise speed at 76,000 feet.

‘As we crossed the West Coast in the early morning twilight, I could see the white ocean breakers all along the California coastline and the millions of lights of Los Angeles below me, as well as the lights of San Francisco and San Diego. Mexico, on my right beyond San Diego, was dark. As the sun came up, we were doing Mach 3.3, and I soon saw Vegas, Lake Mead and the Grand Canyon from 78,000 feet. I glimpsed Pike’s Peak as I passed the Colorado mountains, and Vida and I were soon over farmland.

‘It hit me again that we were crossing country in minutes that took months for our pioneers to do 150 years earlier. I really reflected in this flight what a great country we had – and all of the courage, the prayers and the sacrifices of our forefathers.

SR-71 pilot tells the story of when he and his RSO set four speed records flying from L.A. to D.C. in less than 65 minutes during their final flight in the Blackbird
The “Last Flight” of a SR-71. In background SR-71 S/N 61-7972. Foreground Pilot Lt. Col. Raymond “Ed” E. Yielding and RSO Col. Joseph “Jt” T. Vida Mar. 6, 1990

‘As we flew over the eastern part of the country, everything was in undercast (ed. note: overcast from the ground), but as I passed over the East Coast I got one last view of God’s earth at 83,000 feet. I thought about that too, and how I loved to fly this plane, seeing the slight, but noticeable, arc of the curvature of the earth; the darkness overhead; and the bright blue band of atmosphere over the horizon that was 400 miles from us.

‘We had flown coast-to-coast in 67 minutes and 54 seconds, and from L.A. to D.C. in 64 minutes, 20 seconds. Our average speeds were over 2,125 miles per hour for the former, and 2,145 for the latter.

‘We overflew Wilmington, just below Philly, and were still supersonic in a descending left hand turn, heading toward Washington. When we became subsonic we met another KC-135Q and took on more fuel at 25,000 feet. At Dulles International we made two low passes, one with afterburner, near the crowd that was waiting. We wanted to give them a look at the shock diamonds in the glowing afterburner plumes, and before landing, rocked the wings in salute, deployed that big orange drag chute . . . for this last time. My excitement in flying the highest and fastest plane ever was mixed with some sadness on this day because it was our final flight in the Blackbird.’

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

As already explained, the transcontinental flight, a distance of 2,404.05 statute miles (3,868.94 kilometers), required 1 hour, 7 minutes, 53.69 seconds, for an average of 2,124.51 miles per hour (3,419.07 kilometers per hour).

Intermediate closed-course records were also established: Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., 2,299.67 miles (3,700.96 kilometers), 1:04:19.89, averaging 2,144.83 m.p.h (3,451.77 km/h).; Kansas City to Washington, D.C., 942.08 miles (1,516.13 km), 25:58.53, 2,176.08 m.p.h. (3,502.06 km/h); and St. Louis to Cincinnati, 311.44 miles (501.21 km), 8:31.97, 2,189.94 m.p.h. (3,524.37 km/h).

However these were not the only records set by the SR-71 61-7972. As reported by This Day In Aviation in fact, this Blackbird had previously established a speed record from New York to London of 1:54:56.4, averaging 1,806.957 m.p.h. (2,908.015 km/h). (It had to slow for inflight refueling.) Next, the aircraft set a record flying London to Los Angeles, 5,446.87 miles (8765.89 km), in 3 hours, 47 minutes, 39 seconds, averaging 1,435.49 m.p.h. (2,310.19 km/h). It also established an altitude record of 85,069 feet (25,929 meters).

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 Unknown author (Father of Konstance E. Keever) via Wikipedia


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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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