That time Four Swedish JA-37 Viggen pilots protected an SR-71 that had an inflight engine failure from 20 Soviet Fighter Jets

That time Four Swedish JA-37 Viggen pilots protected an SR-71 with an inflight engine failure from 20 Soviet Fighter Jets

By Dario Leone
Jun 26 2024
Sponsored by: Helion & Company
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The SR-71 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.

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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.

At the time the first Blackbird was delivered to the US Air Force (USAF) there were numerous locations in the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) which were of interest to US intelligence. However, since direct overflights, especially of deep penetrating nature, were out of the question (after the well-known May 1 1960 downing of the U-2 deep inside the USSR, American and other western high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft stopped venturing over the Soviet heartland) so the Americans had to be content with reconnoitring from outside of Soviet airspace sites, located in border areas utilizing stand-off viewing.

Never shot down

The SR-71 was never shot down and, as far as is known, was not even fired on by the Soviet Air Defence Force (PVO); however, that does not mean that preparations to that end were not made. Of the assets available to Soviet air defences,’ high-altitude SAMs and fighter-interceptors were the means which theoretically, could facilitate the downing of a Blackbird.

Fighter aircraft such as Su-15, MiG-23 and MiG-25 were scrambled from Soviet as well as other Warsaw Pact air bases when an SR-71 approached.

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

As explained by Krzysztof Dabrowski in his book Defending Rodinu: Volume 2 – Development and Operational History of the Soviet Air Defence Force, 1961-1991, unlike the MiG-25, which at least had a theoretical chance to engage the SR-71 (though a MiG-25 never fired in anger against one also because catching a Blackbird proved to be an impossible task), the other types lacked performance to intercept an SR-71.

That said, an SR-71 could find itself within the reach of those ‘red’ fighters if at the wrong place and at the wrong time, or if it suffered a technical malfunction negating its speed and altitude advantage. As a matter-of-fact, such a potentially very dangerous situation did indeed happen, but it had a fortunate conclusion.

Swedish JA-37 Viggen pilots protect an SR-71 that had an inflight engine failure

Namely, on Jun. 29, 1987, during a mission over the Baltic, an SR-71 piloted by Lieutenant-Colonel Duane Noll with Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Veltri in the back seat, suffered a failure of its right engine. The Blackbird was forced to descent from its operational altitude down to 25,000 feet (ca 7,600m) as well as to decrease its speed considerably.

Finding themselves in a most precarious situation, the Americans decided to head for Swedish airspace. There, they were intercepted by four Swedish Air Force JA-37 Viggen fighters. It needs to be pointed out, that SR-71 missions were not a secret for the Swedes, who nicknamed them `Baltic Express’.

Even though fighter aircraft in its inventory did not have the performance to intercept an SR-71 flying at its operational altitude and speed, the Swedish Air Force routinely conducted training and missions at times when a Blackbird sortie was expected. Thus, when on that particular day misfortune befell one of the SR-71s, two Swedish Viggen fighters were airborne on a training flight and two more, standing by on QRA, were scrambled, with all four promptly dispatched by military air control to intercept the SR-71 which violated Swedish airspace. Soon enough, they sighted the American aircraft, which was obviously in distress and decided to escort it, rendering whatever assistance they could.

That time Four Swedish JA-37 Viggen pilots protected an SR-71 that had an inflight engine failure from 20 Soviet Fighter Jets
From left to right, Col. Lars-Erik Blad, Maj. Roger Moller, Maj. Krister Sjober, and Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Tom Veltri stand beside the official photo which depicts the event that earned the Swedish pilots their U.S. Air Medals in Stockholm, Sweden, Nov. 28, 2018. The Swedish Airmen risked their lives to save an SR-71 and the aircrew, Tom Veltri and Duane Noll, on Jun. 29, 1987.

An Air Medal to each of the former Swedish Air Force JA-37 Viggen pilots

According to some sources, the Soviets scrambled up to 20 fighters in an attempt to intercept the Blackbird with Lieutenant- Colonel Veltri allegedly even sighting a MiG-25. Fortunately, the situation had a positive resolution, as the Viggens escorted the SR-71 to friendly airspace without incident and the Blackbird was able to make a safe landing.

The events described remained classified for 30 years but once the veil of secrecy was lifted, those involved received the recognition they deserved. Namely, on Nov. 28, 2018 in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, USAF Major General John Williams presented an Air Medal to each of the former Swedish Air Force Viggen pilots who escorted the Blackbird: Colonel Lars-Eric Blad, Major Roger Möller, Major Krister Sjöberg and Lieutenant on Bo Ignell.

Defending Rodinu: Volume 2 – Development and Operational History of the Soviet Air Defence Force, 1961-1991 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Kelly O’Connor

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

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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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