The story of the former SR-71 Blackbird pilot who became the first NATO serviceman to fly a Russian Tu-22M3 Backfire long-range bomber

The story of the former SR-71 Blackbird pilot who became the first NATO serviceman to fly a Russian Tu-22M3 Backfire long-range bomber

By Dario Leone
Feb 16 2023
Sponsored by: Schiffer Military
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On Aug. 22, 2001 Lt.-Gen. Thomas J. Keck, Commander of the USAF’s 8th Air Force and former SR-71 Blackbird pilot became the first NATO serviceman to fly a Russian Tu-22M3 Backfire long-range bomber.

In the mid-1980s a wave of democratic reform swept some of the Eastern Bloc countries. Democratic reforms gradually began in the Soviet Union, too.

After Mikhail S. Gorbachov became the new leader of the USSR in 1985, fundamental changes took place not only in the nation’s home policy and foreign policy but in the military sphere as well. All of this led to the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact military bloc, the demolition of the Berlin Wall, and the signing of new arms reduction treaties.

Two Crew Members killed in Tu-22M3 Backfire Supersonic Bomber crash in Murmansk Region
Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire

In keeping with the agreements reached with the West, the Soviet MoD prepared albums featuring photos in various aspects and performance data of various types of Soviet weapons and military hardware, including combat aircraft. All basic types and versions of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters in service with the Soviet Air Force were photographed in various views, including the upper view; in each photo an obligatory scale ruler was placed near the aircraft, allowing its dimensions to be defined and making it possible to monitor the presence of the aircraft in question at specific airbases, using surveillance satellite imagery. The NATO command was supplied not only with exhaustive data on Soviet military hardware but also its correct Soviet designations.

The veil of total secrecy that had shrouded the Soviet Armed Forces began to be lifted, little by little.

As told by Yefim Gordon & Dmitriy Komissarov in their book Tupolev Tu-22M Soviet/Russian Swing-Wing Heavy Bomber, this demonstrated Russia’s openness in the field of military politics and the lack of aggressive intentions with regard to the former Cold War opponents.

The story of the former SR-71 Blackbird pilot who became the first NATO serviceman to fly a Russian Tu-22M3 Backfire long-range bomber
Photo on the left: Thomas J. Keck (pilot, left) and Timothy J. Shaw (RSO, right) in front of their SR-71 Blackbird. Photo on the right: in 2001 Lt. Gen. Thomas J. Keck was commander of the USAF’s 8th Air Force

On Aug. 20, 2001, accepting an invitation from the Russian Ministry of Defence, a six-man American military delegation led by Lt.-Gen. Thomas J. Keck, Commander of the USAF’s 8th Air Force and former SR-71 Blackbird pilot, paid a six-day visit to Russia to promote military contacts. Among other Russian Air Force bases the delegation visited the Long-Range Aviation’s 43rd TsBP i PLS at Dyagilevo AB on Aug. 22. There the general was given a familiarisation flight in a Tu-22M3 long-range bomber, becoming the first NATO serviceman to fly the Backfire. The sortie involved live bomb drops at a practice range. After landing at Dyagilevo the Russian pilots gave Keck a shot of vodka, then grabbed his arms and legs and swung him, bumping his behind against the aircraft’s nosewheels in an initiation ritual that is often inflicted on newcomers. Lt.-Gen Keck took all this with good humour, as similar traditions existed back home. ‘Sometimes you get very wet being dunked in water, sometimes your neck tie is cut off, sometimes even a tail of your shirt is cut off’, he said. (As a former SR-71 pilot, Keck was referring to the tie-cutting ceremony, one of many traditions perpetuated by Blackbird crews.)

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

‘I was very impressed with everything from the beginning from the ground crew preparing the aircraft to the aviators in sky, the ones who make it all happen’, Thomas Keck told reporters after meeting the then Russian Air Force Commander-in-Chief Army Gen. Anatoliy M. Kornukov in Moscow. ‘The opportunity to see your units firsthand and fly your aircraft has been incredible — something I will never forget for the rest of my life.’ Kornukov said that, apart from the official side of the visit, the unofficial meetings with pilots and air force officers were also important and pledged friendship between Russian and US military aviation professionals. ‘Our meetings are a guarantee that we will not be looking at each other through the crosshairs of a gunsight, but rather facing each other like we do now’, he said.

Tupolev Tu-22M Soviet/Russian Swing-Wing Heavy Bomber is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Dmitriy Pichugin via Wikipedia

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

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Dario Leone

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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