The sight of the SR-71 caused considerable confusion in Ching Chuan Kang tower, particularly when one controller asked for the call-sign of ‘the little black aircraft between the two tankers, which had replied with a tanker call sign’.
Even before the first operational flight of the Lockheed U-2 spyplane, the company’s ‘Skunk Works’ plant was working on its replacement.
The result was the SR-71.
The Blackbird roamed freely over areas previously denied to the vulnerable U-2, capturing photographic, radar and electronic intelligence used to assess bomb damage and gauge the enemy’s order of battle.
First deployed on Mar. 9, 1968, this tri-sonic ‘hotrod’ flew its first operational sortie over North Vietnam just 12 days later.
On Thursday Mar. 21 in fact SR-71A 64-17976 (Article 2027), call sign ‘Beaver Five-Zero’, headed ‘feet-wet’ near the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam during the Blackbird’s first operational combat mission.
As told by Paul F Crickmore in his book Lockheed SR-71 Operations in the Far East, having deployed ‘976’ to Kadena air base, on the Japanese island of Okinawa, 11 days earlier, Maj Jerry O’Malley and Capt Ed Payne duly flew the same aircraft on the Senior Crown (codename for the SR-71 programme) operational debut. They coasted in on a heading of 284 degrees at 78,000 ft (23,774 m) and Mach 3.17, passing over Haiphong. In just 12 minutes they had overflown Hanoi – then the most highly defended city on earth – with impunity, the jet’s sensors recording dozens of high-value targets, before exiting hostile airspace in the vicinity of Dien Bien Phu.
Decelerating and descending over Thailand, the crew rendezvoused with several KC-135Q tankers and took on 80,000 lbs of JP-7 from two of them. With fuel in the tanks, Maj O’Malley quickly reached the SR-71’s optimum speed and altitude and headed back over North Vietnam, before plotting a course for ‘home-plate’ – Kadena air base, on Okinawa.
Feeling justifiably proud of how well their mission had gone up to that point, O’Malley started his deceleration and descent towards Kadena with the expectation of a ‘proper’ first flight mission success party at the BOQ. On contact with Kadena, Approach Control, they were dismayed to find that the base was completely ‘fogged in’. The pilot talked to the tower controller and then to Col Charlie Minter, who agreed to allow them to attempt a low visibility approach for a visual landing.
Using Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) radar assistance, O’Malley descended as low as was prudent into the fog, which the crews on the ground later reported was below the tops of the tanker tails only 30 ft above the ramp. Although the approach was good, O’Malley never saw the runway, and pushed the throttles forward to go back ‘upstairs’ to contemplate further options. Low on fuel, he called for the standby tanker that had been launched earlier just in case the weather at Kadena turned nasty. After link-up, he took on 25,000 lbs of fuel, while Payne copied a two-figure encoded number that told them the location of their divert airfield — Ku Kuan, on the island of Taiwan.
Two additional KC-135s were launched to accompany ‘976’ to Nationalist China, the SR-71 adopting a tanker call sign as the number `two’ aircraft in a three-ship formation. This deception was undertaken to hide the inter-island diversion from SlGINT monitors on the Chinese mainland. As they made their way `low and slow’ with the tankers, the destination airfield’s non-directional beacon returned the unexpected Morse Code identity signal of CCK. The tanker crew soon resolved this problem, however. It turned out that Ku Kuan had recently been re-named Ching Chuan Kang!
O’Malley asked the CCK tower for permission to land, and made a straight-in visual approach at 175 knots, before performing a smooth touch-down. After clearing the runway and lining up behind the lead tanker, he sandwiched ‘976’ between two KC-135s as they taxied in. This unusual sight caused considerable confusion in the tower, particularly when one controller asked for the call-sign of ‘the little black aircraft between the two tankers, which had replied with a tanker call sign’. While Payne was talking to the tower people, O’Malley dialled up the radio frequency of the SAC Command Post that had recently opened on CCK. He asked for the aircraft to be ‘hangared’ (for security reasons).
Since CCK was a PACAF (US Pacific Air Force Command) joint-tenancy base with the Chinese Nationalists, most of its hangars were already tilled with C-130 Hercules transports. To clear a secure spot for the SR-71, a C-130 up on jacks had to he rapidly lowered back onto its undercarriage and rolled out of a hangar. This took 30 minutes to perform, which left the SR-71 standing in full public view close to the base perimeter fence with its engines still running. A crowd of at least 500 Taiwanese gathered 15-deep along a 300-yard section of the fence, all of whom were fascinated to see such a futuristic jet standing on their airfield almost within touching distance.
Once ‘976’ was safely hangared, and a security cordon thrown up around the area, the first order of business was to download the ‘take’ and get it to the various processing facilities so that the ‘goods’ could be fielded out to the intelligence community as quickly as possible. The next priority was to get the jet and its crew back to Kadena. To accomplish that, a recovery crew flew in from Okinawa in a KC-135 the next day.
By then, the raw intelligence data had been despatched to Yokota AFB in Japan for processing by the 67th Reconnaissance Technical Squadron (RTS) — this until processed all SR-71 data until Mar. 29, 1971, when the 548th RTG at Hickam AFB assumed this responsibility. The Side-Looking Airborne Radar (SLAR) imagery was sent to Beale AFB for processing by the 9th RTS, before being sent on to Washington, DC for analysis by national-level agencies.
Meanwhile, back in Taiwan, O’Malley and Payne endured a night in CCK quarters that the latter described as ‘remedial at best’. Having no proper evening clothes other than ‘moon suits’, they borrowed ill-fitting flight ‘grow bags’ and went to dinner wearing their white ‘moon boots’. Things took a turn for the better the following day, however, with the arrival of their ever-resourceful Ops officer, Lt Col ‘Beep-Beep’ Harlon Hain, and his recovery team. He brought with him a full set of `civvies’ for both men, and got them booked in to a first-rate hotel near the base. After two nights at CCK, ‘976’ was ready for its ferry flight back to Kadena. The unrefuelled ‘hop’ was uneventful, but the reception by their friends and colleagues hack at the Little Creek Hangar was ‘superb’.
The post-mission intelligence results were also quite stunning. The SLAR that Payne had manually programmed had indeed worked. Its `take’ revealed the location of the heavy artillery emplacements around Khe Sanh, and a huge truck park which was used in support of those guns —both sites had eluded US sensors on other reconnaissance aircraft up to that point in time. Within the next few days air strikes were mounted against both targets, reducing their effectiveness dramatically.
After a 77-day siege, Khe Sanh was at last relieved on Apr. 7, 1968 (two weeks after ‘976’s’ ‘discovery’ sortie). As a result of their significant contribution to this highly successful mission, Maj Jerome F O’Malley and Capt Edward D Payne were each awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. On its very first operational sortie, the aircraft had proven its value. It would continue to do so on a near-daily basis for the next two decades.
Lockheed SR-71 Operations in the Far East is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and NASA