Military Aviation

SR-71 RSO recalls when USAF Chief of Staff warned Lockheed that trying to avoid SR-71 retirement would hurt chances to win the F-22 contract (and tells true story behind Blackbird retirement)

The Blackbird

The SR-71, unofficially known as the “Blackbird,” is 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.

Throughout its nearly 24-year career, the SR-71 remained the world’s fastest and highest-flying operational aircraft. From 80,000 feet, it could survey 100,000 square miles of Earth’s surface per hour. On July 28, 1976, an SR-71 set two world records for its class — an absolute speed record of 2,193.167 mph and an absolute altitude record of 85,068.997 feet.

CLICK HERE to see The Aviation Geek Club contributor Linda Sheffield’s T-shirt designs! Linda has a personal relationship with the SR-71 because her father Butch Sheffield flew the Blackbird from test flight in 1965 until 1973. Butch’s Granddaughter’s Lisa Burroughs and Susan Miller are graphic designers. They designed most of the merchandise that is for sale on Threadless. A percentage of the profits go to Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base. This nonprofit charity is personal to the Sheffield family because they are raising money to house SR-71, #955. This was the first Blackbird that Butch Sheffield flew on Oct. 4, 1965.

The US Air Force retired its fleet of SR-71s on Jan. 26, 1990, officially because of a decreasing defense budget and high costs of operation.

But as my Dad, Richard “Butch” Sheffield, former Blackbird RSO, explains in his unpublished book “The Very First,” these were not the true reasons behind the SR-71 program death.

Trying to avoid the SR-71 retirement was going to hurt the company chances of winning the F-22 contract

He writes;

‘Satellites could never replace the SR-71. They don’t orbit east to west. Satellites can’t collect 100,000 miles of data per hour and it is easy to predict the path of a satellite. There was new money for projects in the Air Force if they went with satellites so they did. The Air Force Chief put Lockheed out of the SR-71 business. The Chief said that Lockheed trying to keep the SR-71 alive was going to hurt their chances of winning the F-22 contract [at the time the YF-22 was competing against the YF-23 in the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) program]! Contractors like Lockheed only have one customer the Department of Defense.

‘Open POM in 1985 Generals found out the cost for the first time of the SR 71. Open POM was to take classified programs such as the B-2, the F-117, and the SR-71 and reveal their cost to the air staff board so they could see what the Air Force was funding. It sounded like a good idea and probably was. The Air Force at that time had some of the new programs classified and hidden from view, but it was the kiss of death for the SR-71.’

USAF did not use the data collected by the Blackbird

He continues;

‘The SR-71 funding was in trouble because first off the Air Force did not use the data collected by the SR. The users were the Navy, Army, DIA, and a little bit (ELINT) for NSA.

‘NSA never liked the SR-71 Why? Communications intelligence SR went too fast for COMINT they thought communications intelligence was the only kind of intelligence that was useful. When the Air Force Generals saw how much the SR was costing them they revolted they said more than $200 million for operating only 10 airplanes which is ridiculous.

‘U-2 funding was in the General Defense Intelligence Program DIP controlled by the DIA. The Air Staff could not get at that money or they would have.
The SR money was in Program One called Strategic Forces. The reason it was in that budget was that when it came over to the Air Force from the NRO and the SRG the budget for the SR was too big for the GPIP and would have revealed how much was being spent. To cover up the cost they put it in with Strategic Bombers and Missiles, which had a very big budget.

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

The haven for fighter pilots that led to SR-71 retirement

‘About the time of open POM in 1984. The Air Force became a haven for fighter pilots with the death of General O’Malley the four stars were all from Tactical Air Command (TAC) they even put a TAC General in charge of SAC! This is important because from 1955 to 1980 SAC got the highest fastest flying aircraft and the TAC was always trying to catch up. One might ask how did this affect the SR-71? The reason once this very large amount of money was being spent on satellites they no longer wanted to fund the SR-71 The SR went from a national collection platform to Tactical intelligence asset.’

Sheffield concludes;

The SR-71 would be flying today like the U-2 if the Air Force had not gotten the funding data. (The U-2 is supposed to be retiring again. I’ll believe it when I never see a U-2 in the air again.)’

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

This model is available in multiple sizes from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Linda Sheffield Miller and This Day in Aviation

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.

View Comments

  • There's no doubt that high-altitude spyplanes were never going to be a thing of the past even with the high maintenance and operating cost of the SR-71 as well as a new generation of US spy satellites fitted with a data link coming of age in the late 1980s. As Bill Sweetman has noted before, the cost of operating and maintaining the SR-71 fleet was a puny fraction of the cost of a single spy satellite launch, and he brought up this point to join the ranks of those who did not buy into the notion that satellites could do the SR-71's job. The lack of opposition within the USAF top brass to the SR-71's initial retirement in 1990 along with the "donuts-on-a-rope" contrails, triangular aircraft sightings, the so-called "skyquakes" heard over Los Angeles, and black budget holes in Lockheed financial reports for the 1988-1992 interval to make the case that the USAF had replaced the SR-71 with a hypersonic spyplane (with which the 1985 Pentagon budget codename was erroneously associated in the press beginning in 1988). The 2010 monograph "Air Force UAVs: The Secret History" happens to mention that Defense Department official Keith R. Hall, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 15, 1993 that the development of the Quartz unmanned strategic reconnaissance flying wing prior to its cancellation in December 1992 led to the SR-71's retirement because the Quartz had a real-time data link to provide images to field commanders, something the SR-71 lacked when it was retired in March 1990. The fact that the SR-71 was increasingly becoming very expensive to maintain and operate in 1989 meant that by the end of the 1980s the US Air Force took an interest in deploying the Quartz as a viable SR-71 replacement because the Quartz would have served as an operational conduit between spy satellites and field commanders in terms of using a data link to provide images of enemy territory to field commanders (the Quartz program was a CIA/NRO-sponsored program when first initiated in the early 1980s).

    While the YF-22's victory in the Advanced Tactical Fighter competition was thanks to Northrop's preoccupation with the B-2 and AGM/MGM-137 TSSAM programs, despite the YF-23 being faster and stealthier, Richard Sheffield's comments about the F-22 program compounding the need to retire the SR-71 by making Lockheed convinced that keeping the SR-71 operational for much longer would hurt its chances of winning the ATF content are quite biased because retirement of the SR-71 was also going to save money to allow Lockheed and the Air Force to service the F-117 fleet, since Lockheed was finished with F-117 production and was teaming up with Boeing on the ultimate Quartz UAV design.

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