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The Catholic priest who got an SR-71 Blackbird ride
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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