Cold War Era

The story of the SR-71 Double-Engine Flameout over North Vietnam that led to the Blackbird’s nickname the “Lead Sled”

The SR-71 was nicknamed the “Lead Sled” by a few people after Jerry O’Malley (pilot) and Ed Payne (RSO) dropped 60,000 feet over Vietnam in 1968 during the second Blackbird combat sortie.

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Developed from the Lockheed A-12 and YF-12A aircraft, the first flight of the SR-71 Mach 3 + spy plane took place on Dec. 22, 1964, and the first aircraft to enter service was delivered to the 4200th (later 9th) Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., in January 1966.

Throughout its nearly 24-year career, the SR-71 remained the world’s fastest and highest-flying operational aircraft. From 80,000 feet, it could survey 100,000 square miles of Earth’s surface per hour.

The SR-71 was unofficially known as the “Blackbird” and nicknamed the “Sled.”

According to the book Velocity Speed With Direction – The Professional Career of Gen. Jerome F. O’Malley by Aloysius G Casey and Patrick A Casey, the Lead Sled was an unaffectionate name.

The SR-71 was nicknamed the Sled* by a few people after Jerry O’Malley and Ed Payne dropped 60,000 feet over Vietnam in 1968.

O’Malley and Payne have the distinction of logging the second combat sortie for their Blackbird. (They also have the honor of having the first successful combat sortie.) After refueling, they coasted near Saigon and headed north to cross the DMZ into North Vietnam. Near the end of their run, a message was received to abort the remainder of the mission based on confusion in the command chain on exactly what President Johnson meant in a speech he made that day about restricting “strike” aircraft flights north of the 19th Parallel over Vietnam.

As O’Malley eased back on the throttles, both engines rumbled in a compression stall and immediately flamed out! Jerry pushed the nose down to get to the denser air needed for an air start of the big engines. They decided that if they could not achieve an air start at 23,000 feet, they would call it “MAYDAY” and bail out at 14,000 feet. Attempts at 40,000 and 30,000 feet failed, and Ed Payne noted 26,000 feet. As he made ready for the call, he called out, “MAY. . .” the aircraft shook, and O’Malley said one engine had started. By the time they made 20,000 feet, Jerry had both engines “turning and burning.”

Jerry headed south and prepared for the descent. Jerry discussed at length the data he wanted Ed to record as they flew the normal profile back to the home base. When it came time to ease back on the throttles, the engines spooled down normally, and they landed back at Kadena without further incident.

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

The double-engine flameout was the precursor to several similar incidents that followed over Laos and served to reinforce the undesired nickname of Lead Sled …. back at the SAC Reconnaissance Center.

Later, as time went on, the term sled was used in an affectionate way.

*According to The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird by Richard H. Graham, the Blackbird was dubbed ‘Sled’ because the U-2 pilots didn’t like calling the SR-71 by its proper nickname, so they came up with a derogatory name of their own, calling it the ‘Sled.’

Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Facebook Pages Habubrats SR-71 and Born into the Wilde Blue Yonder for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin

This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.
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.

View Comments

    • Thanks! Browse among our SR-71 posts you will find several articles about Blackbird avionics!

  • My father was supervisor of the Aero Propulsion Lab at Wright-Patterson AFB from 1949 to 1959, when he was drafted by Kelly Johnson to set up the test stands for the engines for the RS 71... It's proper designation. SR 71 was a typo that continued forever. The very first Sled was actually an assassination plane built for the CIA, not a surveillance plane. It had a cannon mounted on the port wing right up against the fuselage. You can see that version of the plane at the National USAF Museum here in Dayton Ohio, the Birthplace of Aviation. The cannon is gone, and I suspect it was 30 mm, but there is a flat metal plate approximately 10 inches in diameter on the port wing right up against a fuselage. Obviously it had a bullet shaped aerodynamic cover for the canon before it was removed. Trust me when I tell you that you do NOT put a flat plate like that on a mach 3.8 bird!!! It was designed to reach out and touch an enemy at a distance and get away fast and clean! Another name for the Blackbird is Habu... a very deadly snake, and that is why! Are we having fun here yet? Early test pilots at area 51 complained about the plane going into a flat spin when an engine flamed out and engineers on the ground did not believe them, so the pilots told them the strap in and go up with them and then they believed them, haha!

  • Why are you using my copyrighted painting entitled "The Peacekeeper" in this article without permission?

    • Sorry I find it somewhere on internet as Lockheed Martin image. I just replaced it! I apologize again for the issue!

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