Losses and Aviation Safety

The nose is coming off! How a T-38 trainer helped an SR-71 that was losing her nose section in flight to RTB

“Talking to Lockheed engineers later, they determined there was a good possibility if we had gone supersonic, the entire nose section might have imploded from the supersonic shock wave,” Col. Richard H. Graham, former SR-71 Blackbird pilot

The first order of business before starting SR-71 training was to get checked out in the T-38 Talon aircraft, used as a companion trainer for SR-71 crew members. Another role for the T-38 was to fly “pace chase” formation with the SR-71. Whenever the SR-71 was in trouble and needed to be looked over externally, the T-38 was an ideal aircraft to do the job. Every time an SR-71 was flying at Beale, a T-38 had to be airborne or “cocked” on the ground, ready for immediate response with a qualified “pace chase” crew member onboard.

“On one occasion I needed the ‘pace chase’ aircraft to look me over,” explains 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. “It was right after takeoff, when my RSO, Don Emmons, and I heard a loud “bang” coming from somewhere in front of the rudder pedals. I was approaching our climb out speed of 400 knots and thought I might have hit a bird. Looking out over the nose, I noticed a large piece of the nose section beneath the aircraft had blown open, still attached, but flapping in the air stream. I couldn’t tell the full extent of the damage because the piece was underneath the nose and all I could see was one end of it flapping about. Joe Kinego, another SR-71 crew member, remembered the ‘funny (then scary)’ radio call Don made back to Beale informing everyone of our problem: ‘The nose is coming off!’ That radio call got everyone’s attention!”

SR-71 Nose Section

The nose section allowed the SR-71 to have radar-imaging capability with the advanced synthetic aperture radar system (ASARS), photographic imagery with the optical bar camera (OBC), or a ballast installed. The nose section was held on by faun-massive fasteners.

Graham continues:

“The T-38 chase aircraft joined up in formation and told us the extent of our damage as we returned to Beale. It was comforting to know everything else was intact. A one-by-two foot metal section of the nose had ripped open while still attached underneath. I always felt fortunate that it happened during daylight. Had it been at night, I’m positive I wouldn’t have been able to see the loose panel and might have discounted the possibility of anything being wrong and continued the mission… you just never know.

“Talking to Lockheed engineers later, they determined there was a good possibility if we had gone supersonic, the entire nose section (which is removable) might have imploded from the supersonic shock wave. That scenario would have probably necessitated an ejection for both of us!”

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

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com

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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