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

SR-71 RSO recalls when a KC-135Q Stratotanker flew unprotected into Northern Laos to save his Blackbird after it had a Double-Engine Flameout

By Dario Leone
Apr 7 2024
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The SR-71 Blackbird

The SR-71, the most advanced member of the Blackbird family that included the A-12 and YF-12, was designed by a team of Lockheed personnel led by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, then vice president of Lockheed’s Advanced Development Company Projects, commonly known as the “Skunk Works” and now a part of Lockheed Martin.

The Blackbird design originated in secrecy during the late 1950s with the A-12 reconnaissance aircraft that first flew in April 1962 and remained classified until 1976. President Lyndon Johnson publicly announced the existence of the YF-12A interceptor variant on Feb. 29, 1964, more than half a year after its maiden flight. The SR-71 completed its first flight on Dec. 22, 1964.

The Blackbird was designed to cruise at “Mach 3+,” just over three times the speed of sound or more than 2,200 miles per hour and at altitudes up to 85,000 feet.

Checking out in the Blackbird like a cowboy

Col. David P. Dempster, Blackbird Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO) who was also part of the first US Air Force (USAF) contingent to fly operational SR-71 reconnaissance sorties from Okinawa into “denied areas” (the term “denied area” was referred to a specific area over or around a foreign country where you could encounter anything and everything … from MiGs to SAMs), recalls in Richard H. Graham’s book SR-71 Blackbird Stories, Tales and Legends:

SR-71 RSO recalls when a KC-135Q Stratotanker flew unprotected into Northern Laos to save his Blackbird after it had a Double-Engine Flameout

“Jim Watkins was a great pilot to be crewed with in the Blackbird. A Texas cow-boy who raised horses in his off time, Jim loved, breathed, and lived for flying.

“But, like his horses, he ‘felt’ and handled them with cowboy common sense. Imagine checking out in the Blackbird, a World War II B-24 pilot who flew fighters, transports, KC-97 tankers, and KC-135 tankers at Beale. In tanker, Jim was on the initial OXCART team and provided the air refueling support for the A-12s flying from the Ranch. Jim checked out in the SR-71 like a cowboy putting on an old familiar leather glove!

“We were honored to be among the four SR-71 crews selected to deploy for the first time to Okinawa in March 1968. On 21 March, the first operational sortie flew and the crew encountered a double-engine flameout during descent to their tanker as they exited the target area. After refueling, they returned to Okinawa. A week later the second operational sortie flew, and again, with a different crew and different Blackbird, they encountered the same double-engine flameout at the start of their descent. They landed in Thailand due to the left generator not working. What was happening? Both planes checked out good on the ground after landing and we had lots of jaw-boning among ourselves and with Lockheed tech reps, with no conclusions.

KC-135Q saving an SR-71 over Laos

“Then, on 19 April 1968, Jim and I launched on the third operational sortie (the first for us and Crew Chief Technical Sergeant Bud Martin’s #974). We zipped through the target area with no problems and began the start descent checklist. As Jim pulled the throttle back to the rpm setting called for in our procedures, we had a double-engine flameout. Excitement, adrenaline pumping, and we dropped like a rock into Northern Laos! Jim got both engines started around 30,000 feet, and we headed south. 

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

“Our [KC-135Q Stratotanker] tanker, the real hero of this story, saw our rate of closure on him stop. He knew what had happened and headed north immediately, unprotected, into enemy territory and rendezvoused with us. Refueling with him, we headed back into Thailand and proceeded to our preplanned end refueling point.

“What to do now? We were scheduled to go back to the target area for another ‘hot loop.’ Over the intercom, I heard this commonsense cowboy say, ‘Dave, I think if when we start our descent, we hold a higher-than-normal rpm we can avoid the flameouts. Want to give it a try?’ ‘Sure,’ I answered. We accelerated back to Mach 3-plus and on course into the target area. We eyeballed adding about 30 miles to the start descent range and when the time came Jim’s theory worked perfectly. No flameouts and a smooth descent.

‘Ichiban,’ the ‘number one’ Habu

“What was the secret and why did this work? The answer turned out to be the way the engine’s fuel controls were programmed. They used standard adiabatic lapse rates, which engineers all over the world assumed depicted the height of the tropopause and outside air temperatures at varying altitudes. WRONG! What we discovered was that in Southeast Asia, the tropopause (and magnificent thunderstorms we would look down on) could go as high as 65,000 feet, rather than the textbook 55,000 feet. Moreover, the air was much colder. Lockheed and Pratt & Whitney Co. eventually reprogrammed the fuel controls correctly and the problem went away. In the interim however, all of the crews adopted the cowboy’s technique and the flameout problems disappeared.

“The day after this flight Jim, Technical Sergean. Bud Martin, and I proudly stenciled the first Habu on the side of #974, which went on to be so successful that it was dubbed ‘Ichiban,’ the ‘number one’ Habu in the 1968 period on Okinawa.”

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird model
This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force


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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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