SR-71 RSO tells the story behind this video of a Blackbird creating ’13 Fireballs’ during Air Fete Air Show 1986 at RAF Mildenhall

SR-71 pilot tells the story of when he and his RSO were able to save their Blackbird after it had an engine explosion above 60,000 feet and Mach 2.5

By Linda Sheffield Miller
Jun 26 2022
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Blackbird pilot Ben Bowles and RSO Butch Sheffield were presented the Air Force “Well Done” award when they saved SR-71 #960 which experienced an engine explosion “above 60,000 feet and Mach 2.5 while accelerating to a higher airspeed and altitude.”

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

Among the Blackbirds, SR-71 #960 had the most combat missions the number is 342.

Blackbird pilot Ben Bowles and Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO) Butch Sheffield were both awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving SR-71 #960.

This was when the SR program was pretty new and people were still learning things faster than they’d like. On a training mission in the States, Bowles and Sheffield were presented the Air Force “Well Done” award when they saved SR-71 #960 which experienced an engine explosion “above 60,000 feet and Mach 2.5 while accelerating to a higher airspeed and altitude.”

Bowles describes this particular adventure in an article appeared on Britt Blaser website Escapbale Logic:

“On the morning of 29 July, 1968, my navigator, Jimmy Fagg, was not feeling well when we were having our preflight steak and eggs breakfast at the Personal Support Detachment. Butch Sheffield, returning from leave, walked in and mentioned he needed flight time for pay and he would gladly substitute for Jimmy.

SR-71 pilot tells the story of when he and his RSO were able to save their Blackbird after it had an engine explosion above 60,000 feet and Mach 2.5
Blackbird pilot Ben Bowles and RSO Butch Sheffield were presented the Air Force “Well Done” award when they saved SR-71 #960 which experienced an engine explosion “above 60,000 feet and Mach 2.5 while accelerating to a higher airspeed and altitude.”

“The flight was going well. We had just finished refueling and were accelerating thru approx 2.6 Mach and 65,000′, leaving Louisiana heading West. (ed.: usually a 40 minute flight to Sacramento) First indication of a problem was when the right engine “unstarted”. However, this was more serious than a routine inlet unstart.

“I heard a Big Bang and immediately had a big red light (ed: there are no small red lights) I looked through the rear-facing periscope and saw a huge smoke trail: obviously not a contrail.

“Understand, when the inlet is unstarted, the aircraft is experiencing severe aerodynamic buffeting, making it difficult to read instruments until we slow to about Mach 2. Right engine is shut down. I ask Butch for the Engine Fire and the Descent checklist. I declare “Emergency” with Air Traffic Control center, “descending and diverting to Carswell AFB”. Then I tell Butch to “be ready to bail out”, who responds with, “Oh Shit”! (Butch had punched out of an SR once before and was not anxious to repeat the experience.)

“Butch says, “I wish I had my checklist” (What Butch meant was that he had Jimmy Fagg’s checklist, not his own. Every crew member marks up his checklist with useful margin notes, obviously of great personal value. As a stand-in, Butch was wishing he had his own annotated checklist rather than Jimmy’s, captured on the aircraft’s audio recorder). The roughness is now gone and the machine is flying smoothly with normal control. I tell Butch that I would just as soon stay with her as long as we have good control. Butch concurs (although, the check list says that if Fire Light does not extinguish…Bail Out). The problem remains, Fire Light is still On, flying on one engine, the smoke has diminished, but is it smoke, fuel spray (we are dumping as much as possible prior to landing) or contrail? I don’t want to land with a fire and Butch concurs. Still difficult to tell if we are trailing smoke due to overcast, poor light conditions, and looking through the periscope is like looking through the barrel of a 22 rifle.

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

“We elect to request a fly-by with the tower to tell us if they can detect any smoke or fire. The Fire light is still ON. Tower says we look OK. Landing was uneventful. We taxi to and into a designated hanger, stopping inside, shut down the left engine and the hanger doors are closed. We complete the “shutdown checklist”…unbuckle our harness and stuff, but no one comes to help us out of the airplane. We at least need a ladder! Butch says the crowd is over by the right wing. Finally, a couple of considerate colonels come to our rescue and advised us, “you may want to see this”. We shuffled around to the right side. The outboard forward section of the nacelle had been blown out, taking with it a portion of the wing leading edge. Obvious severe fire damage. Not much of the engine was left in the nacelle…you could see daylight. Lockheed used this accident as testimonial for titanium airframes. Conventional construction could not have survived the intense heat from the fire…the right outboard wing would have failed rather quickly.”

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

Photo credit: U.S. Air ForceStuart Freer and Linda Sheffield Miller

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird model
This model is available in multiple sizes 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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