‘Usually, the SR-71 Blackbird pilots weren’t a chatty bunch, but I could hear the anxiety in the voice of this one,’ Jody Liliedah, Airman.
In 1972, the Vietnam War was still going on. Kadena Air Base, Japan, was considered the gateway to the southeast.
On Jul. 20, 1972 SR-71 Blackbird #978 (known as the “Rapid Rabbit” because of the Playboy logo she sported on both rudders throughout most of her career) crashed at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan.
Airman Jody Liliedah wrote about his eyewitness experience in Air and Space magazine in October 2015.
‘On the afternoon of July 20, 1972, I was in my maintenance truck, eavesdropping on the tower frequency. Word had gotten around that an SR-71 would be landing soon. Usually, the Blackbird pilots weren’t a chatty bunch, but I could hear the anxiety in the voice of this one.
‘I heard the tower warn him of a 90-degrees-to-the-runway crosswind of 35 knots gusting to 50 knots—a typhoon was on its way. I could’ve sworn I listened to the tower advise him to consider an alternate airport. Landing anywhere else was out of the question. The SR-71 wouldn’t have had the fuel, and everyone understood without discussion that the brass wanted that airplane on the ground and out of sight as quickly as possible.
‘I sought out a good vantage point to observe the landing: a small concrete building, which housed fuel pumps, about 50 yards from the runway the SR-71 was headed for. I climbed to the roof and settled in. I could see the landing lights before I could make out the airplane, perfectly lined up with the runway, three or four miles out. I couldn’t have been more focused if I were landing the da** thing myself. The main landing gear touched down, and despite the horrible crosswinds, the fuselage was aligned perfectly with the runway’s centerline. It looked like the pilot was going to pull off a picture-perfect landing. But as soon as he deployed his drag chute, a wind gust blew it to port. I watched the nose shift to starboard.
‘Then one of the left main landing gear tires exploded.
‘The pilot jettisoned the chute, poured the coals to the burner, and rotated away from the runway, climbing back into the sky to circle around.
‘I remember thinking, “What the h*ll is he gonna do now? No drag chute. Blown tire. And a monster crosswind, increasing by the minute.” Fortunately, an incoming or outgoing SR-71 had the entire base to itself. The pilot made a second approach, dumping fuel the entire length of the runway, then came back around for his final approach.
‘As he touched down, a fireball engulfed the left landing gear. The airplane kept rolling, nose still high in the air, and then the right gear tires blew. The Blackbird skidded past me like that, nose up and tires on fire, for four or five seconds. When the left gear collapsed and the wing struck the runway, the left engine exploded and debris flew high into the air. The entire airframe began to spin, still traveling down the runway at probably 150 mph, and finally the right gear buckled.
‘The flaming wreck continued sliding down the runway, still on the centerline, until it finally drifted off to the left, into the grass. It came to rest about two-thirds of the way down the runway, about 4,000 feet from where I stood watching, jaw agape.
‘I watched the pilot and reconnaissance system operator in their bright orange flight suits leap from the remnants of their aircraft and run from it as fast as they could. I jumped down from the building and several of us started running toward them, but a fire truck and a base security car cut us off. The officer in the car ordered us to stay back.
‘Five hours later, the typhoon was upon us.’
The pilot, Captain Dennis K. Bush, and the reconnaissance systems officer, Captain James W. Fagg, escaped without injury.
Lew Williams who was part of the recovery team pointed out on my Facebook Page Habubrats that although this was a normal flight Bush and Fagg had on the yellow/orange colored suits.
Williams recalls: “A crew from Palmdale led by Mel Rushing was deployed to our detachment and did the cutting up and the disposing of the structural remains and the location was on Habu Hill [According to the book SR-71 Revealed the Inside Story by Richard H. Graham, Habu Hill was a notorious viewing spot on Kadena where crowds of curious and avid aircraft watchers assembled to see the SR-71 takeoff and land].”
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: U.S. Air Force