The SR-71 Blackbird is the fastest manned jet in history. It had no flaps, slats, spoilers or speed brakes. The problem was getting this fast, clean airplane to slow down. To help reduce wear and tear on the tires and wheel brakes, the aircraft was fitted with a drag chute to shorten its landing roll. This consisted of a three-stage chute system. When the pilot would pull the drag chute handle, a 42″ diameter Pilot Chute would be jettisoned from the top of the aft fuselage, deploying a larger 10′ diameter Extraction Chute. That would pull a safety pin, allowing the 40′ diameter Main Chute to blossom.
The drag chute is a beautiful shade of orange. The same color as the parachute that was used for ejection. I know this because my father Butch Sheffield ejected on Apr. 13, 1967. The parachute is still at my mother’s house.
On rare occasions, the drag chute doors opened inadvertently at high Mach, creating problem.
In the book SR-71 Revealed The Inside Story by Col. Richard Graham, a harrowing story is told in which the drag chute compartment door opened during an acceleration through Mach 1.5. After flying out of Kadena Air Base, Pilot Lt. Col. Joe Matthews and RSO Lt. Col. Curt Osterheld felt a firm jolt on their airplane and found themselves short on fuel with a center of gravity that was creeping further and further forward.
The crew aborted the mission and diverted back to Kadena. After a nasty descent with many unstarts, they landed, pulled the drag chute handle and nothing happened. The crew was forced to use nothing but the wheel brakes to come to a stop. When they exited the aircraft, they found that the right-hand drag chute door had opened, ripped off and put a 10″ incision in their aft-most fuel tank.
The drag chute had been pulled from the airplane, but thanks to some clever engineering, the chute did not blossom and stay attached. Osterheld mentions in the book that, “We were grateful to the Lockheed engineers for designing the drag chute to lock to the aircraft only when the drag chute handle was pulled. One can imagine the effect of the chute deploying in flight at Mach 1.5!”
Pima Air Museum in Tucson, Arizona, preserves an SR-71 drag chute underneath the aircraft that it once flew with.
Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Facebook Page Habubrats for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.
Photo credit: Curt Mason and U.S. Air Force
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