Cold War Era

The incredible story of the SR-71 Blackbird that flew an eleven-hour-long mission from Kadena to the Persian Gulf and back

“Like every other crew, we wanted this mission. It was special, it was a first, it would cover territory that the jet had never been in, and it would provide the test of skill and “stuff” that every aviator/adventurer requires from time to time,” former SR-71 pilot Lt. Col. Mike Smith

In the following post, which appears in Col. Richard H. Graham’s book The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird, former SR-71 pilot Lt. Col. Mike Smith (Ret) tells the story of a very special Blackbird mission.

A Very Tiring Mission

Major Doug Soifer and I were still pretty new at the game when the first oil tanker convoys were to be escorted into the Persian Gulf past the Iranian threats of a blockade. We were at Kadena as a younger senior crew, when tasking came down for an SR-71 mission into the Persian Gulf to locate “Silkworm” antiship missiles. There had been considerable discussion at higher headquarters as to which Det should fly the mission. Plans were made and remade, maps drawn and redrawn, problems studied and restudied until the powers that be finally decided that an SR-71 would fly from Kadena to the Persian Gulf and back, one of the longest missions ever flown in the SR-71. It would be a true test of both man and machine. Like every other crew, we wanted this mission. It was special, it was a first, it would cover territory that this jet had never been in, and it would provide the test of skill and “stuff” that every aviator/adventurer to requires from time to time.

Colonel Tom Alison was the Det 1 commander, and he had us plan and think and study the mission for what seemed like weeks. Minor changes in routing or targets had the ripple effect of changing many, many details, and at times it seemed that the slow-moving convoys would be in the gulf before the SR-71. Of course, the best jet, 975, was the number one choice, and the other, 967 (our favorite), would be the airborne spare. Kadena was absolutely overrun with tankers and aircrews. The planned mission was more than eleven hours of flight time, five refuelings, thousands of miles between suitable emergency runways, and a target area so small that we would have to slow down slightly to stay on track due to the SR-71’s large turn radius at high speeds. The crew was more than ready.

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

The morning of our mission, July 22, 1987, was a beautiful, tropical island day, and at last count twenty-seven tankers would take off to get our one black jet to the Persian Gulf and back. We began the routine: normal crew brief, suit-up, and then [we] got the word of a slight delay. The ANS wasn’t quite right. We elected to go out to the jet and wait for the fix, and in a few minutes we were told that they were finishing up. No sooner had we stood up than Colonel Alison rushed up to tell us that maintenance had dropped a part under the ejection sear and we would be taking the spare-967, our jet.

Takeoff was a heavy weight [sixty-five thousands pounds of fuel] right to supersonic cruise—we were exhilarated. Our only shortage was our oxygen—which we used at a very high rate for the first hour—but after tightening up our helmet face seals a little, our oxygen use slowed to normal. We would laugh later that it had been our heavy breathing that was using up the oxygen. After the first refueling the jet settled into its rhythm and flew perfectly for the entire flight. The crew in the airborne spare was right behind us, ready to take over if we developed problems.

We flew over places that were new to us. I saw inlet temperatures climb seventy degrees in less than a minute in level flight above seventy thousand feet and clouds so high and so white they seemed to glow over the Indian Ocean. Finally we arrived in the target area and flew through the Strait of Hormuz, right over the convoys. We had to slow to about Mach 2.5 to make the turn inside the Gulf and were listening to the E-3 airborne warning and control system make threat calls in addition to watching our own equipment. Fortunately, we were busy and finished so quickly that the threats didn’t have time to become dangerous.

We had both been confident that we would get to the target. Now came the tough part. We had to get home. Unfortunately weather moved in to our last refueling area. When we finally found the tankers, one had a bad refueling boom and the other had no director lights. The refueling wa OK. After one last supersonic leg, 11.2 hours after we left Kadena, we landed in the dark with no liquid nitrogen remaining. The maintenance and operations support guys were ecstatic; 967 had run flawlessly—no writeups for the entre mission. It was the greatest feeling of my life!

Photo credit: NASA and U.S. Air Force

Artwork courtesy of

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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