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The SR-71 Blackbird
The SR-71, unofficially known as the “Blackbird,” was a long-range, advanced, strategic reconnaissance aircraft developed from the Lockheed A-12 and YF-12A aircraft. The first flight of an SR-71 took place on Dec. 22, 1964, and the first SR-71 to enter service was delivered to the 4200th (later 9th) Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., in January 1966.
Its incredible speed enabled it to gather intelligence in a matter of a few seconds while streaking across unfriendly skies, like proved by this story featured in my father’s (Richard “Butch” Sheffield, former Blackbird RSO) unpublished book.
SR-71 Vs North Korea SA-2 SAMs
North Korea, Nov. 22, 1969, SR-71 number, 972
-First SR-71 to overfly North Korea and first to land in South Korea.
Some years later General Minter told me that Commander in Chief Pacific (CINCPAC), Admiral McCain (father of the Senator McCain of Arizona), requested this mission. He had visited Kadena and was briefed on the SR and the missions we were flying over North Vietnam. He told General Minter that he was more worried about North Korea than he was about Vietnam.
General Minter had his staff draw up a mission to over fly every surface to air missile (SA-2) site in North Korea on one mission and submitted it to CINCPAC. It was approved and we flew it. It was a perfect day for flying a reconnaissance mission, not a cloud in the sky. I believe that North Korea had about thirty SA-2 sites scattered all around the country. Several of the sites were along the China border and we flew right over the sites. Because Korea is a narrow country with Japan on one side and China on the other, we had to make 180-degree turns over the water after each pass over Korea. It seemed like we were in a turn the whole mission. We flew over every missile site in North Korea.
F-4 with an engine out
On the last pass we turned south to head back to Kadena when the generator fail light came on. I looked out the left window and could see Kunsan, South Korea, below us. We were flying at Mach 3+ and it would only take about forty-five minutes to be on the ground at Kadena and after we debated for a few seconds to land or go on, we decided to shut the engine down, and started our descent to Kunsan.
We called the tower at Kunsan and told them we were an F-4 with an engine out and needed to land right away. They cleared the traffic pattern for us and when we came into view someone said over UHF radio that they would get us some flying suits to wear. It was a flight surgeon that had been stationed at Beale and he knew we were in full pressure suits and would need something to wear. He was in the ambulance on the flight line responding to our emergency.
No hangar big enough for the SR-71
Kunsan is located along the West Coast of Korea and fairly close to North Korea. From time to time, the North Koreans would come in boats and attack the base with weapons launched from the boats. Apparently, when we gave the call over HF to Kadena that we were going to land at Kunsan, they had called and told Kunsan to park us in a hangar and give us maximum security. They did not have a hangar that was big enough for us and the only really secure area was the F-4 nuclear alerts area where F-4’s with nuclear weapons loaded stood on alert. This area was surrounded by large land filled bunkers and high chain link fences. They opened the gate and we taxied right in, the F-4’s could not get out so we shut down the nuclear capability of Kunsan.
Hiding the SR-71 in South Korea
The idea was to hide us so no one would know a SR was in Korea. Parking the SR in this area where no one could get into would keep people and the press from knowing what had landed. The only problem was you could see our rudders sticking up from behind the bunkers all over the place. In no time, the base people and the press knew the first SR to land in Korea had arrived.
After we deplaned, we got out of our pressure suits and into our non-descriptor no markings flying suits. Bob said we needed to go to the Base Exchange and get some “shiny stuff,” or brass items that the Koreans specialize in making. We got someone to take us to the exchange and we walked in expecting no one to know whom we were. All of the sudden people were pointing at us and talking. They knew who we were because of the white boots we were wearing.
North Korea tracked the SR-71
Because of the threat to the SR and the intelligence we had on our sensors, getting us out of Korea quickly and safely became a high priority throughout PACAF. Soon C-130’s began to arrive with equipment, a new engine and to pick up the sensors. A KC-135’s arrived with JP-7 fuel for us. They put us up for the night in the VIP quarters and even the Base Commander had dinner for us at the club. The next morning the aircraft was ready to go and we left. We took off to the North, went out a few miles and came back over the base, lit the afterburners and went straight up.
The North Koreans had tracked our aircraft throughout the flight. I knew because our defense’s systems had told me, yet the Government of North Korea did not object because they did not want their own people to know that we were spying on them and they couldn’t do anything about it.
Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Twitter Page Habubrats SR-71 and Facebook Page Born into the Wilde Blue Yonder for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.
Photo credit: Lockheed Martin, U.S. Air Force and Linda Sheffield Miller