Cold War Era

SR-71 Pilot Tells the Story of When He Buzzed the Tower of Sacramento Airport with Afterburners Lit

‘As we were approaching the tower I rolled the SR-71 up away from it and lit the afterburners. We went around and made a pass. The tower controller said “Beautiful, beautiful, come back and do another one,”’ Maury Rosenberg, SR-71 Pilot.

Recorded at Western Museum of Flight in 2018, the following tape features SR-71 Pilot Maury Rosenberg talking about the one time he decided to request a “fly-by” over the Sacramento airport on his way returning to Beale Air Force Base (AFB) – where he was going to land.

The request was eagerly approved by air tower crew, and wanted him to fly the SR-71 “down the ramp” (much closer to the tower and other buildings).

Rosenberg recalls:

‘I think it was the 1982 or 83 Toronto airshow. I was a participant, we took an SR-71 and three crews went. One crew flew it in. One crew flew the second day airshow. And the third crew which was myself flew just a couple of flybys the third day of the airshow and then actually flew the aircraft back to Beale Air Force Base. So when I came back into the Sacramento area and I was descending down to land at Beale, we had a lot of fuel. We had to work on the holiday and I asked the backseater You want to make an approach at Sac Metro? And he said Can we do that? And I said Why not?

‘So, when we got over to approach control I asked if Sac Metro was available for an approach and they said they’d switch this over to Sac Metro and they cleared us for an approach. So, as we were coming down final and we had configured the airplane with the gear down and we’re about two miles out on final, they switched us over to tower.

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‘I asked the tower Would you like a flyby down the runway or down the ramp? The guy said Down the ramp! When I said okay, I sucked the gear up, pushed the power up. We started heading towards the ramp, towards the tower. As we were approaching it, I rolled the plane up away from the tower and lit the afterburners. We went around and made a pass. The tower controller said “Beautiful, beautiful, come back and do another one”. I said I better not, I’m gonna go to Beale. So, we went back to Beale and we landed.

‘As I mentioned it was a holiday weekend and Colonel Lonnie met us when we pulled in the hangar after we landed which was the normal procedure. I thought well that’s nice that he came out. As I came down the ladder from the aircraft, he looked at me and he said Maury, do we have any regulations that say we can’t make approaches at Sacramento Airport? I said No sir.
I want one on my desk at seven o’clock tomorrow morning.

‘Now there’s a continuation to this story. I retired in 87 and flew with United Airlines. I was a Boeing 767 co-pilot and in 87, I think it was either the fall of 87 or the winter of 88 right after the New year, I was flying a 767 from Washington DC to San Francisco and an air traffic controller wanted to know if they could ride in the cockpit. The captain of the plane signed it off. So, this young lady was the air traffic controller. I was flying, it was my leg from DC to San Francisco.

‘We’re flying and he’s just talking to her halfway across the country and at some point, he asked her how long she’d worked at San Francisco Airport. She hadn’t been there that long, she said she used to work at Sac Metro. I looked over my shoulder at this young lady and I said Were you working Sac Metro in 1982? She looked at me and she said yeah, I was, why do you ask? I said Were you working tower when the SR-71 buzzed it? Oh yeah, I was how did you know that and I told her it was me and she started laughing. She said you scared the hell out of people, there were people in the terminal that dived to the ground. They thought the airplane was going to hit the turf.’

Native of California, Maury Rosenberg graduated Northrop University, 1964 with a Bachelor of Science in Aircraft Maintenance Engineering and Graduated USC, 1975, with a Master of Science in Systems Management Engineering.

Commissioned as a 2nd Lt. through Officer Training School (OTS) March 1965, Rosenberg graduated from undergraduate pilot training (Class 66-G) from Laughlin AFB, May 1966. He was selected for F-4 Phantom transition school and completed training December 1966.

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He served 11 months in Vietnam at Cam Ranh Bay, flying 220 combat sorties, 69 of which were over North Vietnam. He was then assigned to Yokota AB Japan for a 3-yer tour. Rosenberg was selected for F-4 Wild Weasel training, serving final year in Japan in the 80th Wild Weasel Fighter Squadron. He then served at Nellis AFB for a 30-month tour. While stationed at Nellis he served as a Wild Weasel instructor pilot and completed and graduated from the Air Force’s Fighter Weapons School. Last 10 months at Nellis AFB, Captain Rosenberg served as an instructor in both the Fighter Weapons School, and Wild Weasel School and flew flight test and evaluation in the 22nd Operational Test & Evaluation Squadron.

Volunteered and selected for the SR-71 program at Beale AFB in May 1973, he served two tours at Beale in the SR-71 and was an instructor in the 2-seat B-model trainer. Now a Lt. Col., served as Operation Officer for the SR-71 1st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron. Selected as Director of Reconnaissance 15th Air Force in July 1984, he retired from active duty Jun. 30, 1987.

He flew as a 1st Officer on the Boeing 767 for United Airlines from May 1987 until January 1991 before being upgraded to Captain on the Boeing 737 and then transitioning to Captain on the Boeing 767/757 in October 1995. He retired from United Airlines on Nov. 1, 2003.

Notables: He flew F-4 C, D, E, and Slated Wing E models. He received “Well Done Award” from the Air Force’s Aerospace Safety Magazine for recovering an SR-71A model after experiencing a catastrophic right engine 4th stage compressor disintegration at 77,000 feet in excess of Mach 3. Rosenberg was the 2nd pilot to accumulate over 1,000 hours in the SR-71 and has the most operational hours in the SR-71. He had the privilege to fly retired Brigadier General Chuck Yeager in the SR-71B model and in August 1981 he visually sighted a North Korean SAM-2 missile fired at his SR-71. Rosenberg was awarded 15th Air Force Reconnaissance Pilot of the year 1984.

Photo credit: Robin Harbour and U.S. Air Force

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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