The story of the Catholic priest who got an SR-71 VIP ride and flew at Mach 3.33 breaking the Blackbird Speed Record

The story of the Catholic priest who got an SR-71 VIP ride and flew at Mach 3.52 breaking the Blackbird Speed Record

By Linda Sheffield Miller
Oct 1 2023
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The Catholic priest who got an SR-71 Blackbird ride

The actual unofficial top speed of the SR-71 Blackbird is Mach 3.52. This happened because of the urgings of a Catholic priest!

SR-71 pilot Tom Alison said, “My God, Padre, what more do you want? I came within 5 degrees of burning up this entire airplane! “What more do you want?”

The Father wanted to make sure that he broke the official record of the fastest speed in the SR-71 that’s what he wanted.

SR-71 T-Shirts
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.

Father Hesburgh was used to asking for a lot and getting it.

An aviation buff

According to University of Notre Dame website, Father Theodore Hesburgh, President of the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, was an aviation buff. He was hooked after a flight in a barnstormer’s stunt plane at the age of 10 that his Dad paid five dollars for. In his autobiography, he wrote that He has logged nearly three million miles in the air, flying in supersonic fighter jets such as the F-14 Tomcat, as well as in exotic aircraft such as a Torpedo Bomber, a Weather Plane, and many more. He also broke the sound barrier several times, flew into a volcanic crater, and piloted a naval bomber over the Pacific despite having no formal flight training.

The story of the Catholic priest who got an SR-71 VIP ride and flew at Mach 3.33 breaking the Blackbird Speed Record
Alison on left Hesburgh on right.

But he wanted more.

The ultimate prize would be to fly in the world’s fastest airplane and break the current record. That record was set in 1976 at Mach 3.2.

Hesburgh’s chance came while talking with President Jimmy Carter in the White House.

President Carter was thanking the Roman Catholic priest for his Goodwill accomplishments during a meeting at the White House; he asked Hesburgh ‘Is there anything I could do for you?’ President Carter recalled the moment Hesburgh asked for the favor: ‘I said, “Fr. Hesburgh, it’s not customary for civilians to ride on a top-secret airplane.”

He said, ‘That’s all right. I thought you were Commander-in-Chief.’

The story of the Catholic priest who got an SR-71 VIP ride and flew at Mach 3.33 breaking the Blackbird Speed Record
(Althouhg Wing Commander Shelton’s name was Franklin everybody used to call him Dale)

Two days later, Hesburgh got a call from the Air Force’s chief of staff. He was to report to Beale Air Force Base, CA, to undergo a training regimen and a series of rigorous tests. After passing the physical and psychological examinations administered to astronauts, Hesburgh had to learn how to operate every instrument in the back seat: navigational equipment, radios, and dozens of gauges and meters. He was then put through situational training for various emergency scenarios, including ejection and equipment failure. Father Hesburgh was possibly the oldest VIP to get a ride in the SR-71. He was 61. A close rival for this title would be Senator Barry Goldwater. He was 60 when he got his VIP ride in 1969.

On Feb. 28, 1979, Hesburgh and the SR-71 pilot, Major Tom Alison, prepared for their attempt to break the Blackbird’s speed record.

The priest wanted to push it to the limit.

After cruising at 30,000 feet just under the speed of sound, Allison and Hesburgh dove 5,000 feet and broke the sound barrier. They then turned their nose upwards and rocketed past 80,000 feet, accelerating through Mach 3. As Hesburgh watched the speedometer, the Blackbird pushed past Mach 3.52, breaking the plane’s speed record.

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

An almost impossible task

In his autobiography, Hesburgh said that when he’d landed, he asked Alison if he had pushed the plane as fast as it would go. Alison responded, “My God, Padre, I went within five degrees of burning us up. What more do you want?”

Hesburgh fulfilled a lifelong dream — he set an unofficial airspeed record in the world’s fastest airplane, an SR-71 Blackbird. This became the Father’s proudest accomplishment, a story that he told over and over again to his friends.

This is a truly remarkable story about a man who asked for an almost impossible task and received it!

Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Twitter Page Habubrats SR-71 and Facebook Page 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 in multiple sizes 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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