Cold War Era

SR-71 RSO tells the story of when his Blackbird made an emergency landing in South Korea after an engine failure experienced while spying over Vladivostok

As the target was approached, the left engine oil pressure began to drop (at Mach 3.2). As the SR-71 Blackbird started the precisely programmed right turn to avoid an overflight, the left engine oil pressure dropped to zero.

The following story is the part 2 of the mission flown by SR-71 Blackbird crew made up by Colonels Robert (Bob) Spencer and Richard (Butch) Sheffield over Vladivostok to collect the SA-5 radar signal.

The story comes from former SR-71 Blackbird Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO) Colonel Richard Sheffield’s unpublished book and first appeared on Linda Sheffield Miller (who is Col Sheffield’s daughter) Facebook Page Habubrats.

From Richard Sheffield’s unpublished book.

On Sep. 27, 1971, about 10:30pm local time, Colonels Spencer and Sheffield launched from Kadena Air Base (AB), Okinawa, Japan, in SR-71 Number 980. After an air-to-air refueling north of Okinawa, they accelerated to Mach 3.2 and about 80,000 feet. They proceeded via the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan, to Vladivostok and the targeted SA-5 missile site. As the target was approached, the left engine oil pressure began to drop (at Mach 3.2). (The SR-71 is subject to extremely high structural temperatures due to air friction. With these excessive temperatures the loss of engine oil pressure can result in a catastrophic engine failure in a very short period of time. To preclude this, the engine must be shut down immediately).

As the SR-71 started the precisely programmed right turn to avoid an overflight, the left engine oil pressure dropped to zero. An immediate engine shut down would cause a reduced bank angle and overflight of Vladivostok, and also an extreme degradation in altitude. At the risk of engine disintegration and possible loss of the aircraft, the programmed escape turn was continued. Once mission success was achieved and departure from the SA-5 threat area was assured, the left engine was shut down and a descent to a single engine flight altitude of about 18,000 feet was begun. At this point, Japan afforded the nearest alternate base for recovery, but was politically unacceptable. Because of strong headwinds and poor single engine fuel performance, the only accessible friendly base was Taegu, South Korea.

SA-5 Gammon

When Colonels Spencer and Sheffield approached Taegu they had an emergency fuel situation. Upon contacting the tower, they were informed that the field was closed. Only after some animated conversation informing the tower operator that there was an RF-4 on one engine, nearly out of fuel and about to crash, did the operator turn on the runway lights so the SR-71 could land.

[As Linda Sheffield Miller explained to The Aviation Geek Club when they landed at Taegu the base commander showed up half dressed in his car yelling: “What are you doing here?!” And Bob Spencer said: “What did you want me to do, ditch it?” Meaning the SR-71. She also told that when they landed they looked out the window and saw all those people in kimonos with machine guns, Spencer said: “Butch, are you sure we’re in South Korea?”]


When the intelligence analysts reviewed the data from the special ELINT recorder designed by NSA and carried by the SR-71 crew during the mission, they found that the soviets had reacted as anticipated. The electronic intelligence signal collection system carried on Colonels Spencer and Sheffield’s flight brought back the necessary SA-5 emissions to enable our electronics engineers to design an effective electronic warning and defense system to delude the Soviet SA-5 missile capability.


The accounts reflected in the above description of the mission flown on Sep. 27, 1971, are true and accurate. At the time of this mission was flown all SR-71 tactical activities were highly classified. We did not want the Soviets to know that we had collected the SA-5 signals. This made it impossible to submit the details of the flight in an award recommendation [that was effectively written by Colonel Hal Confer, 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW) Commander 1970-1972 and featured in part 1 of the story that you can read HERE]. This subject remained classified until after the time limit had passed for submitting the mission for an award.

The recent change in the award regulations now makes it possible to submit this very significant mission for the recognition it deserves.

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

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and George Chernilevsky via Wikipedia

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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