US Navy F-4 pilot recalls when his Phantom II radar screen went black because of the high speed of an SR-71 Blackbird he and his RIO tried to intercept while it was exiting Chinese airspace

US Navy F-4 pilot recalls when his Phantom II radar screen went black because of the high speed of an SR-71 Blackbird he and his RIO tried to intercept while it was exiting Chinese airspace

By Dario Leone
May 18 2023
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‘I watched in amazement as the Vc circle [on the radar display] which told us the relative closing velocity of the target started rapidly winding up far higher than I had ever seen it before,’ Jerry Hart, US Navy F-4B Phantom II pilot.

During its 24 years of service, the SR-71 Blackbird gathered intelligence in some of the world’s most hostile environments. The Blackbird evaded all 1,000 missiles fired at it and, to this day, remains the only US Air Force (USAF) aircraft to never lose a crewmember associated with it; whether in the air or on the ground.

The Blackbird was designed to operate at extreme velocities and altitudes: in fact, from 80,000 feet, it could survey 100,000 square miles of Earth’s surface per hour. Thus, achieving a radar lock on it was extremely difficult not only for any hostile fighter but also for the best American fighters, as we have already explained.

A claim confirmed by Jerry Hart, a former US Navy F-4B Phantom II pilot, who told to The Aviation Geek Club;

‘During the Vietnam War the Navy kept at least 2 fighters airborne in the northern Gulf of Tonkin 24/7/365 flying a mission called BARCAP (Barrier Combat Air Patrol) as part of the first line of defense for the carrier(s) to the south operating on Yankee Station and sometimes Dixie Station. The other part of the first line of defense was provided by a heavily armed guided missile cruiser, radio callsign “Red Crown” whose Air Intercept Controllers (AICs) controlled the fighters and any others operating in the northern Gulf.

‘The BARCAP was usually a very boring mission of drilling around in a racetrack pattern east of communist North Vietnam and south of the island of Hainan owned by communist China for several hours until relieved on station by another section (2 aircraft) of fighters.

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‘I was leading a section of F-4Bs on BARCAP one bright severe clear Chamber of Commerce day when “Red Crown” gave us a heads-up call of a friendly who would be coming at us from the north. That could only mean one thing. An SR-71 would be exiting Chinese airspace from over Hainan Island coming right over us.

‘We were cruising around saving gas at about 25,000 feet. I turned us toward the north to see if we could pick him up on radar and possibly see him as he passed overhead. After running the antenna up in elevation as far as it would go my RIO was able to paint a target and quickly locked it up.

‘I watched in amazement as the Vc circle [on the radar display] which told us the relative closing velocity of the target started rapidly winding up far higher than I had ever seen it before. Then the B trace, which indicated the target’s position relative to the nose of our aircraft, began to dither back and forth rapidly before slamming to the side of the scope and the screen went completely black. We never could get it to work again.’

Hart concludes;

‘We thought we could at least see it fly overhead as it passed us. Nope. Too high, even for us to see with the naked eye. I had once seen another aircraft at 56 nautical miles verified by radar so I knew my eyes weren’t the problem.’

Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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