The story of the USAF General who killed the SR-71 program because he was turned down to fly the Blackbird

The story of the USAF General who killed the SR-71 program because he was turned down to fly the Blackbird

By Linda Sheffield Miller
Jun 22 2024
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The Blackbird

The SR-71, unofficially known as the “Blackbird,” is a long-range, advanced, strategic reconnaissance aircraft developed from the Lockheed A-12 and YF-12A aircraft. The first flight of an SR-71 took place on Dec. 22, 1964, and the first SR-71 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. On July 28, 1976, an SR-71 set two world records for its class — an absolute speed record of 2,193.167 mph and an absolute altitude record of 85,068.997 feet.

B-58 navigator recalls dropping Mark-53 nuclear bomb (without plutonium pit) while flying at 500 feet and at 628 knots, low level recce missions, dinner with Doolittle Raiders and Jimmy Stewart
CLICK HERE to see The Aviation Geek Club contributor Linda Sheffield’s T-shirt designs! Linda has a personal relationship with the SR-71 because her father Butch Sheffield flew the Blackbird from test flight in 1965 until 1973. Butch’s Granddaughter’s Lisa Burroughs and Susan Miller are graphic designers. They designed most of the merchandise that is for sale on Threadless. A percentage of the profits go to Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base. This nonprofit charity is personal to the Sheffield family because they are raising money to house SR-71, #955. This was the first Blackbird that Butch Sheffield flew on Oct. 4, 1965.

The US Air Force retired its fleet of SR-71s on Jan. 26, 1990, officially because of a decreasing defense budget and high costs of operation.

The USAF General who killed the SR-71 program

But as Jim Goodall, military historian and and author of the book Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird: The Illustrated History of America’s Legendary Mach 3 Spy Plane with 27 years of service in the USAF and the MN Air Guard, told me these were not the true reasons behind the SR-71 program death.

He explained;

‘As a military historian and a published author, I have a good understanding of how and why the Blackbirds were put to rest long before their time.

‘In 1985, General Jerry O’Malley was the Air Force Chief of Staff and was a very strong supporter of the Blackbird. It may be that he was the first Air Force pilot to fly the very first SR-71 Blackbird over enemy territory, that is, North Vietnam. General O’Malley loved the Blackbird and all the maintained, built, supported, and flew “Kelly’s Black Jet.”

‘On 20 APR 1985, the first Air Force officer to fly an operational mission in a SR-71 was killed in a plane crash that also killed his wife and two Other military officers.

SR-71 art
This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.  Dawn at 80.000ft – SR-71 Blackbird

‘His next in command was his Deputy Chief of Staff (AFCS), a General Larry Welch. General Welch did not have the same warm and fuzzy feelings that General O’Malley had toward the SR-71. The reason? Welch was turned down to fly the SR-71 when he was a major, he was not that good of a pilot, that was a requirement to be considered for the prestigious position of being a crew member of the world’s fastest operational aircraft.’

The pain of losing out on flying the Blackbird

He continued;

‘The pain of losing out on flying the SR-71 was bitter pill that Welch had a hard time swallowing. His first order of business once he took over and Air Force Chief of Staff was to do everything in his power to kill the program. He sent out a memo that stated, If anyone under his command said anything negative about the Blackbird’s, he was fine with that. But, if anyone, from the lowly E-1 Airman Basic to the O-10 general level, they were going to have to live with the repercussions to their careers.

‘So, pulling every string and favor he could, Welch effectively killed the Blackbirds. The Russians, the North Vietnamese, the Chinese and the Israelis couldn’t shoot one down using their best pilots, and a second rate general, who wasn’t good enough to take control of a plane that moves through the air at 3,400 feet per second, or two miles every three-seconds took down the entire fleet. Last operational SR-71 flew on 09 March 1990, six months prior to Saddam invading his neighbor.

‘To make matters worse, during the beginning of Desert Shield, Air Force contacted the Skunk Works in early September and asked what it would take to have one SR-71A reactivated and operationally ready for the up coming war in Iraq. It took Ben R. Rich, then President of the Lockheed Skunk Works about ten days to have answer.

Reinstating the Blackbirds and making the man who killed the SR-71 program looking bad

The story of the USAF General who killed the SR-71 program because he was turned down to fly the Blackbird

‘Ben told Air Force, that he needed a gold plated authorization letter to cut through all the red tape, a blank check, access to all sensors, Air Force support and electronics, then in storage, and his pick of both operational pilots and ground crew. Once the “Go” was given, he would guarantee that the Blackbird would be fully operationally ready.

‘Air Force told Ben to hold that though. About a month later, they got back to Ben. They asked what it would take to have a second SR-71 ready? Ben said he already had the answer, 30 days, start to operational readiness.

‘It’s now late October/early November 1990. Finally, after waiting over 70 days for a reply as to when could Lockheed expect the ‘Go-a-head” for reactivation of two SR-71s. He was told, and he told me in a meeting I had with him after he retired. He was told that since the program was cancelled by the total lack of support at the Air Force Chief of Staff’s office, to reinstate the Blackbirds now would make the AFCS, that be Welch, look bad.’

Goodall concludes;

‘So much for waving Old Glory and petty back stabbing by the Jack Ass that was the reason the program was killed. He should be charged with treason, found guilty, and e******d, but not necessarily in that order.

‘Cheers…. Jim Goodall, USAF (ret).’

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

Cool Video Explains how SR-71 Blackbird’s J58 Turbo-Ramjet Engine Works
This model is available in multiple sizes from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

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

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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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