SR-71 test engineer tells the story of when Thunderbirds refused to perform after a Blackbird flew at 1986 Norton AFB Air Show

That time Thunderbirds delayed their display because they were scared by an SR-71 doing a low-level fly by in afterburner above their F-16s

By Linda Sheffield Miller
May 18 2024
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The Blackbird

The SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft was the world’s fastest jet-propelled aircraft and the most advanced member of the Blackbird family developed by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s clandestine “Skunk Works” division.

B-58 navigator recalls dropping Mark-53 nuclear bomb (without plutonium pit) while flying at 500 feet and at 628 knots, low level recce missions, dinner with Doolittle Raiders and Jimmy Stewart
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 Blackbird was in a different category from anything that had come before. “Everything had to be invented. Everything,” Skunk Works legendary aircraft designer Kelly Johnson recalled in an interesting article appeared on Lockheed Martin website.

The speed of the SR-71 exceeded 2,000 mph. Other planes of the era could, in theory, approximate that speed but only in short, after-burner-driven bursts. The Blackbird maintained a record-setting speed for hours at a time.

The Blackbird was in a different category from anything that had come before.

Even her appearances to air shows were never commonplace as Mike Relja, former SR-71 test engineer, recalls;

‘Thought you might like this picture I took at the Norton Air Show on Nov. 16 1986 when I was working for the Flight Test Division out of Palmdale. We took the flight test aircraft to 2 air shows every year, Edwards [Air Force Base, AFB] and Norton [AFB].

F-16 Thunderbirds print
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Thunderbirds refuse to perform after an SR-71 flew at 1986 Norton AFB Air Show

‘Any way a little background about the shot, BC Thomas (Pilot) and Phil Soucy (RSO) were flying the departure show. BC had already made 3 passes and asked the tower to offset the runway a little for his last past and then do a burner climb out and head for Palmdale. As you can see, he came in directly over the Thunderbirds about 400 knots then hit burner right over them and climbed to about 25K before leveling off and heading home. It scared those guys so bad they wanted to dig holes in the ramp to get out of the way.

SR-71 test engineer tells the story of when Thunderbirds refused to perform after a Blackbird flew at 1986 Norton AFB Air Show

‘Long story short the Thunderbird people were so ticked/embarrassed that they refused to do their show until we moved all the SR-71 support equipment off the end of the runway we launched from. We moved it over to the hangar with the open doors but they still wouldn’t perform (used a BS line it was in their way/unsafe) so we put the stuff in the hangar so no one could see it anymore and then they did their show.’

Relja concludes;

‘Still get a kick out of it every time I see it and remember those guys scrambling.’

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.

Cool Video Explains how SR-71 Blackbird’s J58 Turbo-Ramjet Engine Works
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Photo credit: Mike Relja


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Linda Sheffield Miller

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.
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