“The nose section was gone just forward of the cockpit and the canopy had caved in on me. I thought, ‘I’m inside the KC-135Q; death is imminent!’,” Maj Buddy Brown former SR-71 pilot.
The SR-71 would be a very short-ranged aircraft were it not for air refuelling, limited to around 2,000 NM. Multiple air refuellings extended the range of the aircraft to the limits of crew endurance. Many missions have exceeded 12,000 NM. Forward basing of the SR-71 and KC-135Q tankers permitted faster response, shorter range, shorter duration missions, fewer air refuelling, and greater overall efficiency.
KC-135Q crews and their aircraft were unique from the rest of the Air Force in several ways. Their aircrews in fact were the only one certified in Blackbird’s specific radio-silent rendezvous procedures, and their boom operators were the only ones qualified to refuel the SR-71. The Q-model tankers had special plumbing between their fuel tanks, allowing them to transfer JP-4 and JP-7 fuel between various tanks. Their engine could burn transfer JP-4 or JP-7 fuel. If the SR-71 landed somewhere JP-7 fuel was not available, the Q-model tankers flew in with the fuel and, through the use of transfer hoses on the ground, were able to refuel the SR-71. One of the best advantages of flying the Q-model tankers is that their crews did not have to be on twenty-four-hour alert status like the rest of the SAC’s tankers’ crew members.
No story on the SR-71 would be complete without an understanding and appreciation of just how valuable the KC-135Q model tankers and their crews were to the successful and safe completion of every mission.
On Jun. 17, 1970, Maj Buddy Brown and Maj Mort Jarvis were to fly a special mission to check out a new jammer and verify some changes that had been made to another high-powered jammer. The test was to be conducted over the Gulf of Mexico in the Eglin Test Range, which was instrumented for tracking high-altitude targets. The flight took them around the western US toward a second air refuelling near El Paso, Texas before the planned high and hot run across the Eglin Test Range. The flight, which began at 0730 hours at Beale, went well until a split-offload air refuelling from two tankers. Buddy described what happened next in Paul F Crickmore’s book Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions (Revised Edition).
“When we completed the rendezvous, I pulled up into the pre-contact position and waited for the ‘cleared for contact’ call from the boomer. After receiving the call, I flew to the contact position and waited for the boom to be inserted into ‘970’s receptacle. I got the nozzle contact light and started taking on fuel. I remember commenting to Mort on how smooth the air was that morning; there wasn’t any turbulence that one sometimes felt on the eastern side of the mountain range around the El Paso area in the summer time.
“During the refuelling I was following the directional lights on the bottom of the tanker to keep position ‘in the green’ (the centre of the air refuelling envelope). After we’d taken on about 35,000lb of fuel, a crewman called over the boom-linked interphone that I had taken the required amount of fuel and that they would initiate a disconnect on the count of three. At the end of the count I felt the disconnect, throttled back, dropped down and back slightly and spotted my second tanker, which was to my right.
“I moved to the pre-contact position behind number two, reset my refuelling system for contact and called that I was ready to refuel. The second boomer acknowledged ‘ready to refuel’ and I pulled into the contact position and waited for boom contact. Shortly thereafter, the boom made contact, which I again verified by feel and the ‘contact-made’ light on my instrument console, and continued with what I expected to be a routine air refuelling. Two or three minutes into the second refuelling, the aircraft hit a sort of bump and shook as if it had just flown through some turbulent air. I asked Mort, ‘Did you feel that?,’ to which he emphatically answered, ‘Yes’. It felt quite unusual because the air had been so smooth that morning. It may have been another aircraft’s jetwash that was laid across our track by an airliner that had passed earlier. Again, there was another disturbance that I corrected with a small stick input. Then it was quiet and smooth again.
“Out of nowhere, the nose gave a small pitch down and a hard pitch up. I pushed the stick quickly forward, but the nose and canopy struck the bottom of the tanker. The nose section was gone just forward of the cockpit and the canopy had caved in on me. I thought, ‘I’m inside the tanker; death is imminent!’
“My next thoughts were about bailing out, so I told Mort to bail out and pulled the ‘D’ ring between my legs. I still thought I would eject up inside the tanker. There was a lot of noise and debris flying around as I was pushed down into my ejection seat by the rocket that was firing me free of the aircraft. Next, I was aware of free falling in my ejection seat, whose ‘chute was stabilizing my descent toward 15,000ft where the butt-snapper lofted me out of my seat and my pretty parachute opened automatically. I opened my visor to look around the sky for my RSO, the Habu [SR-71] and the tanker.
“The tanker was making a turn overhead and Mort was about 1,000ft below me in his ‘chute. I didn’t realize it at the time, but both my legs had been broken during the ejection. They were numb from the break and I couldn’t feel a thing. During the descent, I looked at the ground and contemplated my landing. When I hit, I was dragged a few feet before I got one side of my parachute unhooked. I then unhooked the other side, crawled over to my seat kit and got the emergency radio out. I called the tanker and said that I was OK and asked if they had contacted my RSO. The tanker crew responded affirmative to both questions and waited for us to be picked up by a chopper from the Fort Bliss Army Hospital at El Paso, where the doctors checked us over and splinted my legs.
“My aircraft had smashed into the ground approximately 20 miles east of El Paso at 0915 hours. The tanker flew back to Beale, did an inflight controllability check with an approach to landing speed and determined it was safe to make a landing. After it rolled to a stop off the Beale runway, it was encircled by fire trucks and Beale officials, who were amazed at the amount of damage inflicted to its tail, and how that tough old bird was able to continue flying with a severely damaged horizontal stabilizer.“
Buddy recovered from his broken legs, was cleared to return to crew duty later that year, and served a full career as a senior staff officer.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com