The story of the SR-71 Blackbird that pitched up and collided with a KC-135Q tanker during an air refueling over El Paso

The story of the SR-71 Blackbird that pitched up and collided with a KC-135Q tanker during an air refueling over El Paso

By Linda Sheffield Miller
Nov 27 2021
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When his SR-71 pitched up and slammed into a KC-135Q tanker at 26,000 feet, Blackbird RSO Maj. Mortimer J. Jarvis knew it was time to go. The pilot, Lt. Col. Buddy Brown, ejected from the damaged SR-71 and Mortimer was right behind him.

While doing research on Buddy Brown I found this article on The X-Hunters website. I was living at Beale when this happened and I remember hearing about Colonel Brown breaking both of his legs, he recovered and went on to have a fantastic career in the Air Force.

On Jun. 17, 1970, Lt. Col. Buddy L. Brown and Maj. Mortimer J. Jarvis of the 1st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron were scheduled for a crew training flight. The crew was also to test a newly installed defensive avionics system (DEF F) over the range at Eglin Air Force Base (AFB), Florida.

Two KC-135Q tankers took off first and proceeded to the BUSY PALACE refueling track near Albuquerque, New Mexico. The first tanker used call sign OSSAL 59. The second KC-135Q (59-1474), using call sign OSSAL 73, was crewed by Maj. Carl J. Roland, Capt. Darrell F. Messenger, Maj. Neil I. Walters, and CMSgt. David C. Eckley. OSSAL 73 proceeded to a portion of the refueling track near El Paso, Texas.

Brown and Jarvis entered the cockpit of the SR-71 and prepared for takeoff. Engine start and run-up were completed without incident. Using call sign ASPEN 33, they took off from Beale AFB, California, and proceeded to BUSY PALACE.

The story of the first SR-71 crew to deploy a Blackbird in Japan that landed at Kadena two hours before the take off from Beale beating the sun
Buddy Brown and Dave Jensen in front of an SR-71 Blackbird Mach 3 spy plane

ASPEN 33 accomplished climb, acceleration, and high-Mach cruise, followed by a descent into the BUSY PALACE refueling track. Brown hooked up with the first KC-135Q, OSSAL 59, without incident. After transferring 35,000 pounds of fuel, Brown disconnected, and maneuvered to hook up with OSSAL 73, near El Paso, Texas.

Contact with the second tanker was smooth and effective. Three minutes later, following transfer of 16,000 pounds of fuel, the SR-71 suddenly dropped four to six feet. As Brown attempted to stabilize the aircraft, it pitched up and struck the tanker.

The crew of OSSAL 73 heard and felt the collision. The boomer, CMSgt. Eckley watched in horror as the aircraft pitched upward with such rapidity that he had no time to take action or call for a breakaway. The black shape of the SR-71 briefly filled the boomer’s window, the tanker shuddered with the impact, and the stricken spyplane dropped away.

The Blackbird’s canopy glass fractured, causing Brown to lose all outside references. Also, his control panel had broken loose from it mounts and he was unable to control the airplane. Brown called Jarvis over the intercom to order him to eject, but Jarvis never heard him. Jarvis saw the flash as Brown bailed out, and the PILOT EJECTED light on his instrument panel. Jarvis then ejected, and both crewmembers parachuted to safety.

Eckley reported the collision to the flight crew over the tanker’s intercom. Maj. Roland and Capt. Messenger checked their flight controls and determined that the KC-135 was still airworthy. They then reported the accident to Albuquerque Air Traffic Control Center and told them to initiate recovery procedures for the downed SR-71 crew.

KC-135 Print
This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. KC-135R Stratotanker 161st Air Refueling Wing, 197th Air Refueling Squadron “Copperheads”, 63-8038 – Arizona Air National Guard – Sky Harbor ANG Base, AZ

The SR-71 impacted the ground some 20 miles east of El Paso, blasting a crater in the desert. The airplane was completely destroyed. It had logged a total of 545.3 flight hours. A helicopter from Fort Bliss arrived within minutes and picked up the crew. They were taken to Beaumont Army Hospital for examination and treatment.

The KC-135 proceeded back to Beale where it landed without major difficulties. The refueling boom, which could not be stowed after the collision, dragged the runway during landing.

The Appeal, a newspaper Yuba City Marysville California, reported:

Mort Jarvis: His parachute did not open when he ejected at 15,000 feet!

When his parachute didn’t open after he was released from the ejection seat at 15,000 feet, Maj. Mort Jarvis knew what to do.

“The most deliberate move I ever made in my life was reaching up and pulling that D-ring,” he said.

Former SR-71 Pilot Explains why the Blackbird had to Light one Afterburner during Aerial Refueling

Moments earlier, when his SR-71 pitched up and slammed into a KC-135Q tanker at 26,000 feet, Jarvis knew it was time to go. The pilot, Lt. Col. Buddy Brown, ejected from the damaged SR-71 and Jarvis was right behind him.

It was June 1970 and the crew was high above the desert landscape near El Paso, Texas, testing out new equipment in the aircraft.

With both crew members safely on the ground, the 1st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron airmen, out of Beale Air Force Base, were rescued by a helicopter from Fort Bliss. The Yuba City resident continued flying as a navigator in the SR-71 for another three years and found satisfaction in the intelligence being gathered whether it was mapping radar sites or taking photographs.

He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1973 after 20 years in the Air Force. Happy to report that Mort Jarvis is living in California. Buddy Brown passed away several years ago. All of the Air Force officers that ejected from the SR-71 survived. Including my father Colonel Butch Sheffield.

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

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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