Blackbird Pilot explains why the SR-71 had to refuel right after takeoff (and it’s not because it leaked fuel)

“The left afterburner technique” and all the special problems that made SR-71 Blackbird air refueling challenging

By Linda Sheffield Miller
Dec 4 2022
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The SR-71, needed to be refueled approximately every hour. Refueling was tricky, but Blackbird pilots were always up to the challenge.

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The SR-71 Blackbird would be a very short-ranged aircraft were it not for air refueling, limited to around 2,000 NM. Multiple air refuelings extended the range of the aircraft to the limits of crew endurance. Many missions have exceeded 12,000 NM. Forward basing of the SR-71 and KC-135Q tankers permitted faster response, shorter range, shorter duration missions, fewer air refuelings, and greater overall efficiency.

As told by Col. Richard H. Graham, a former Blackbird pilot, in his book SR-71 The Complete Illustrated History of THE BLACKBIRD The World’s Highest, Fastest Plane, KC-135Q crews and their aircraft were unique from the rest of the Air Force in several ways. Their aircrews in fact were the only one certified in Blackbird’s specific radio-silent rendezvous procedures, and their boom operators were the only ones qualified to refuel the SR-71. The Q-model tankers had special plumbing between their fuel tanks, allowing them to transfer JP-4 and JP-7 fuel between various tanks. Their engine could burn transfer JP-4 or JP-7 fuel. If the SR-71 landed somewhere JP-7 fuel was not available, the Q-model tankers flew in with the fuel and, through the use of transfer hoses on the ground, were able to refuel the SR-71. One of the best advantages of flying the Q-model tankers is that their crews did not have to be on twenty-four-hour alert status like the rest of the SAC’s tankers’ crew members.

No story on the SR-71 would be complete without an understanding and appreciation of just how valuable the KC-135Q model tankers and their crews were to the successful and safe completion of every mission.

The story of the SR-71 Blackbird that pitched up and collided with a KC-135Q tanker during an air refueling over El Paso

The SR-71, needed to be refueled approximately every hour. Refueling was tricky, but SR-71 pilots were always up to the challenge.

Usually, refueling was the first thing that they did after takeoff. Under some circumstances, while flying from Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, they would take off with enough fuel for the entire mission.

Graham recalls;

“No refueling necessary it was called a Yo-Yo. But this was a maintenance nightmare. A few of our missions required the SR-71 to accelerate to Mach 3+ right after takeoff with a 65,000-pound fuel load. The Yo-Yo procedure had the crew chief completely refuel the plane to full tanks of 80,000 pounds of fuel. Then, with the nitrogen pressurization system working, they de-fueled 15,000 pounds of JP-7, ending up with a 65,000-pound fuel load and a plane that was capable of going immediately to Mach 3+.”

As explained by Aloysius G. Casey and Patrick A. Casey in their book Velocity Speed with Direction The Professional Career of Gen Jerome F. O’Malley, refueling presented special problems: visibility was poor due to the triangular forward window, and the helmet associated with the pressure suit caused undesired reflections. The receptacle (which received the fuel) was aft of the cockpit; therefore, the SR-71 had to fly underneath the tanker. Normally, one would take on about 70,000 pounds or 11,000 gallons of JP7 fuel.

SR-71 print
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Typically, refueling took place at about 25,000 feet. As the weight increased and the air speed had to be held down to accommodate the slower tanker, the aircraft became thrust-limited; that is, drag increased as it approached the stall speed for this unique aircraft (there was no additional thrust available without afterburner). At that point, the pilot had to move one throttle slightly into the afterburner range to hold position.

Using one afterburner required the pilot to counter the asymmetry with rudder or just tolerate some sideways flight. Interestingly, the pilots developed the left afterburner technique so the aircraft would yaw slightly to the right. This way, only the left quarter panel had defogged air, and one could get that benefit if needed. Refueling was an intense effort for the pilot and was required two to four times for each mission.

Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Facebook Pages Habubrats and Born into the Wilde Blue Yonder for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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

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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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