‘We were at Mach 2.88 and 68,000 feet over Oklahoma when the right engine suffered catastrophic failure,’ Colonel Richard Sheffield, SR-71 Blackbird RSO.
On Dec. 9, 2018 my father Colonel Richard “Butch” Sheffield, former SR-71 Blackbird Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO), died. Before he died he said “Linda get my stories out there.” To honor him I’m going to share one of his many stories. Dad‘s book was very close to getting published, but it is on hold right now.
This is the story of an SR-71 Blackbird testing mission that went wrong.
On July 29, 1968, I was sitting at my desk in the 1st. SRS when the phone rang. It was someone from PSD saying Jim Fagg had just failed his pre-flight physical and cannot fly today. Did anyone want to take his place? I told them I would be right over.
I rushed over to PSD, took the pre-flight physical, ate the pre-flight meal and rushed downstairs and suited up in my pressure suit for the flight. I did not have time to get my own checklist so I took Jim’s checklist and flight data from him. Ben Bowles, Jim’s pilot, and I had known each other for a while and he was one of the wings best. They had already taken him to the aircraft and were strapping him in so we could make an on-time takeoff.
The mission was one we had been flying to test out the aircraft’s long range. It went from coast to coast and covered just about every state across the country. We made an on time take off, refueled and flew to the East Coast, refueled and were heading back to the West Coast accelerating to Mach 3.
We were at Mach 2.88 and 68,000 feet over Oklahoma when the right engine suffered catastrophic failure. The aircraft became very hard to control and we could see the right engine burning even though we had shut off the fuel to it. Ben asked me if I wanted to “get out.” My back was still sore from ejecting the year before, I thought, if I eject again, it might break my back, I said, “no.”
It was a very rough ride down from 68,000 feet. The aircraft was bucking like a bronco. We were running lots of different checklists; (1) engine fire; (2) engine failure; (3) generator failure; (4) hydraulics failure; (5) descent and (6) others (still classified).
I had; declared an emergency with Air Traffic Control on the UHF radio, squawked emergency 7700 on the transponder, given Ben the heading to Carswell, AFB, Texas (I picked Carswell because it was in front of us and Ben had landed there before in B-58’s) called Beale on the HF radio to tell them we were landing at Carswell, while we were running all those checklists. I said to Ben, “I wish I had my checklist,” because Jim’s checklist was set up for a left-handed person.
I could see the fire & smoke coming out of the engine even after we shut off the fuel. We had fuel tanks in the wing of the SR out to near the engine. If the fire reached that fuel we would blow up.
As we approached Carswell, smoke was still pouring out of the right engine. I said to Ben that if it were still burning when we stop on the runway and the fuel pools, it might explode. He agreed. I suggested we fly by the tower and ask them if they can see flames, which we did. They said no flames and we landed. The fire trucks surround us once on the runway and I could see the fire chief making a large circle with his hands and arms—it was the size of the hole in the engine.
What we didn’t know at the time was the forty-gallon oil tank in the wing was burning, and shutting off the fuel did not put out the fire. Kelly Johnson, developer and manufacture of the SR-71 said later that this was the only blackbird that ever flew that was structurally unsound (the right wing had warped due to the heat). #960
We had been informed by our base to taxi the SR into a hanger. Carswell had cleared out a hanger that had a B-52 in it and we taxied up to the door. The fire chief saw the fuel leaking out of the wings, like it always did on the ground, and stopped us from taxing into the hanger by blocking our way with his truck. We were forced to shut the engine down, outside the hanger and we knew they didn’t have a tow bar to pull us into the hanger, so the SR would have to sit there until someone flew in the tow bar.
After we got out of the aircraft, the fire chief and Ben got into a heated argument. The chief was saying no one pulls into one of our hangers dripping fuel. Ben was saying that the fuel won’t burn. The chief didn’t believe him. The fuel was PF-1; it was designed to not explode up to temperatures of 400 degrees Fahrenheit. To keep it from exploding, Cesium A-50 was added to the fuel. To light the fuel, we used Triethyiborane (TEB). So, Ben went over to a crew chief and asked him to use his oily rag. He put it in the fuel and carries’ it over out of the way and asked the fire chief to try and set it on fire—he did and it burned like mad. The combination of oil, rag and fuel went up in smoke. The fire chief said, “I told you so.”
Shortly after that I was told that SAC Command Post was on the line and wanted to talk to me. I was still in my pressure suit and I went to a phone in the hanger. They said, “Why didn’t you land on the first pass, why did you fly around with an engine out?” I said we wanted to make sure the fire was out, they said, we think you should have landed on the first pass. I told them to call our Commander and tell him and hung up. I knew what our commander’s position was, you do what is right, and you land safely and you don’t call or listen to SAC Command Post.
After we had gotten out of our pressure suits, we were told that a KC-135 would be landing soon and would take us back to Beale, that day. They needed to get Ben back to fly the trainer the next day. When I walked out to the tanker to fly back to Beale, I went by the broken SR-71, parts were hanging down everywhere, and it was in bad shape. I reached up and pulled off part of the right-wing composite structure and carried it back to Beale with me.
When we landed at Beale, Colonel Minter, Wing vice Commander met us. I handed him the part of the wing and said; “here is your aircraft.” Over the years I have thought what a stupid thing that was to do. He could have fired me right on the spot. That just goes to show you what a great group of Commanders we had, he understood how stressed out I was.
The Accident Board
A couple days later I was told to report to Division Headquarters for an accident board. I said what accident? They said, “Yours.”
I went into Headquarters and was ushered into a room that looked like the accident board when I ejected, a very formal seating arrangement. I was sworn in and the first question asked was “why didn’t you have a checklist?” I didn’t know what they were talking about. They said again, this time saying it this way; “why did you say, I wish I had my checklist?”
For the first time in the program, I knew that everything we were saying in the cockpit was being recorded.
I told them I had a checklist, but it was Jim’s. His checklist was the same as mine but arranged a little different. That seemed to make them happy. After I finished, I went to the Squadron and wrote on the blackboard in large print; “Did you know that everything you say in the cockpit is being recorded?”
The aircraft, 960, stayed at Carswell for several months. They put a new wing on it from SR-71 number 64-17950 that had been written off when it ran off the runway at Edwards earlier in the program. It was then flown back to Palmdale low and slow to be fixed. I understand that it took about six months to repair it.
Later, Ben, Bill Campbell and I wrote a new checklist for an engine failure at high Mach that included all that action required, five different checklists needed to be run at that time.
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: Linda Sheffield Miller and TSGT Jose Lopez / U.S. Air Force