Military Aviation

‘We truly felt invincible at Mach 3.15:’ SR-71 pilot tells the story of his BDA flight of Libya in Support of Operation El Dorado Canyon

‘The take seemed normal as we made our hard right turn towards Tripoli, and we were tuned for the SA-5 site at Sirte. Again, warning lights flashed, but nothing was visible — we truly felt invincible a Mach 3.15,’ Lt Col Jerry Glasser, SR-71 Pilot.

An icon of the Cold War, the SR-71 Blackbird had been in frontline service for almost a decade by the time it started flying from RAF Mildenhall, Suffolk, UK, on a regular basis. The aircraft’s mission in-theater was simple — monitor Warsaw Pact troop movements along the Iron Curtain and photograph the various ports with access to the Baltic and Barents Seas that were home to the Soviet Union’s nuclear submarine fleet.

When tensions between America and Libya flared in April 1986, the intelligence-gathering capabilities of the British-based SR-71s were called upon to provide post-strike bomb damage assessment (BDA) of Operation El Dorado Canyon, and three missions were flown by the SR-71 over Tripoli and Benghazi.

As told by Paul F Crickmore in his book Lockheed SR-71 Operations in Europe and the Middle East, Lt Col Jerry Glasser, an SR-71 Instructor Pilot and Director of Simulator Training with over 900 hrs of `Habu’ flight time already under his belt, together with his RSO Maj Ron Tabor, an RSO instructor and the chief back-seat simulator instructor, were the primary aircraft crew that would conduct post-strike BDA surveillance after the attack. Majs Brian Shul and his RSO Walt Watson were nominated to fly back-up first time around. A third crew, Lt Col Bernie Smith, the Chief of the Standards Board, and instructor RSO Lt Col Dennie Whalen were en route via a KC-135Q to join their colleagues. They would fly a later mission over Libya.

On Apr. 15, 1986 hours s before the `Hiabu’ launched, the first of its support tankers got airborne. Four KC-135s and KC-10s left the base for their refuelling orbits, ‘Finey 50′ (KC-135 59-1520) and ‘Finey 51′ (KC-10 83-0079) launching at 0230 hrs and 0240 hrs, respectively. `Finey 52′ (KC-135 58-0125) and ‘Finey 53′ (KC-10 83-0082) launched at 0402 hrs and 0405 hrs, followed by ‘Finey 54′ (KC-135 60-0342) and ‘Finey 55’ (KC-135 58-0094) at 0412 hrs and 0415 hrs. Finally, ‘Finey 56’ (KC-10 83-0075) left Mildenhall at 0740 hrs.

Lt Col Jerry Glasser and Maj Ron Tabor took-off as scheduled at 0500 hrs in SR-71 64-17980 (call sign ‘Tromp 30’).

Glasser now provides a unique insight into that first sortie;

`For take-off we carried 55,000 lbs of fuel, which was 10,000 lbs more than normal. A night launch down Mildenhall’s 8500-ft runway was always exciting. From a safety aspect, I always had concerns for the buildings at the end of runway 29, especially when we were heavy. We rendezvoused as planned with “Finey 54” and “Finey 55”, which had entered a holding pattern off the southwest coast of England. Our first aerial refuelling was fine except for a little turbulence. We then made our first acceleration towards the Med.

‘The early morning acceleration with the sun rise and the coast of Europe to the left painted a wonderful scene, and the turn through the Straits of Gibraltar was quite spectacular — we were prohibited from taking random photos of the Straits, however.

‘For our second aerial refuelling, we planned to have a KC-135Q act as lead to a KC-10 in trail. This was because of the special comm/ranging equipment that was unique to our dedicated tankers. We thought the addition of an extra tanker was overkill, but things worked out just fine. The KC-135Q flew one mile ahead of the KC-10 and we ranged on both.

‘The weather was clear but the sun angle was a big problem. As we hooked-up at 31,000 ft, I couldn’t see the tanker’s director lights due to the glare. I’d talked to the KC-10 boomer prior to the mission, and this proved to be an invaluable conversation. As a result of our chat on the ground, he fully understood the speed/altitude incompatibility issue, and that the sun angle was likely to cause a problem. I had two boom disconnects before I settled down, and to further help reduce the glare, Ron got the tanker to turn ten degrees right and I “hid” under its number one engine nacelle. When we reached 53,000 lbs of JP-7 on-load, I put both throttles into min-burner to stay on the boom – normally, we’d engage the left burner at about 77,000 lbs (dependant on the outside air temperature) in order to get a full fuel load from a KC-135 at our usual altitude.

`Ron did a masterful job managing the on-load — he knew I was just hanging on for the last 27,000 lbs to complete a full off-load. Knowing that the director lights were of no help to me, the KC-10 boomer also did a fine job keeping us plugged in. When we’d finally finished, we began our second acceleration. I have to say that I’ve completed many aerial refuellings in the SR-71 in good and bad weather on pitch black nights, even in an area we called the “black hole” over the Pacific, off Kadena, at night, with no moon and in rough weather. However, that second aerial refuelling was my most challenging ever.

‘As we began the second acceleration, the right afterburner wouldn’t light, but a little manual rise in exhaust temperature, together with another shot of TEB (TriEthylBorane — JP-7 was so inert that it had to be kindled by use of TEB, which ignited spontaneously on contact with oxygen), and we were off again. We entered a solid cirrus deck at 41,000 ft, and I began to get a little concerned when we didn’t break out until we reached. 60,000 ft. However, as soon as we were clear, dead ahead of us was the coast of Africa, and Ron got set for the Benghazi take. As we levelled off at 75,000 ft at our cruising speed of Mach 3.15, the jet was running just beautifully. I knew to leave Ron alone during this phase, as he was really busy. The DEF warning lights started to flash and Ron signalled that all was a GO. The take seemed normal as we made our hard right turn towards Tripoli, and we were tuned for the SA-5 site at Sirte. Again, warning lights flashed, but nothing was visible — we truly felt invincible at Mach 3.15.

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‘The weather over Tripoli wasn’t good. As we completed the run and turned out of the area, Ron gave an “OPS NORMAL” call, so Brian and Walt, who were fast approaching the pre-designated abort point, made a right turn short of Gibraltar and headed back to Mildenhall. As it subsequently turned out, morning fog cut out some of the optical take around Tripoli and two more missions would be required to complete the BDA picture – one due to weather and the other because of OBC failure.

‘Our third, and final, refuelling, conducted down at 26,000 ft, was uneventful. We pressure disconnected off the boom and headed home once again through the Straits. The remainder of the mission was “normal, normal, normal”, as Ron and I made our final descent into the UK and called “London Mil”. I still plainly recall the impeccable English of the Air Traffic Controller that gave us both a little lift. “Good morning gentleman. It’s been a long day for you”. I feel some nostalgia, and a great sense of pride, when l think back to the professional relationship Det 4 had with British controllers.

‘As we were handed over to the various controlling agencies on our way back to Mildenhall, we were eventually vectored to runway 11 for a ground-controlled approach. The landing was uneventful, and as we taxied back to the “barn”, there was Brian, Walt, Bernie and Dennie in the “mobile car” to greet us. But as was my habit, as I stepped from the gantry ladder, the people I first made sure to shake hands with were tile maintenance chiefs who, through their professionalism, had enabled Ron and I to fulfill our part of the mission.’

As planned, Majs Brian Shul and Walt Watson had launched at 0615 hrs in aircraft 64-17960 (call sign ‘Tromp 31’) and duplicated the route flown by Glasser and Tabor to the first ARCP with ‘Finey 54′ and ’55’ off Cornwall. Shul spotted the returning F-111s approaching head-on, several thousand feet below. ‘Lujac 21’s’ pilot (the F-111 flight leader) duly rocked his wings in recognition and Shul returned this time honoured aviation salute with a similar manoeuvre.

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The final tanker (KC-10 83-0075) assigned to refuel the F-111s on their return flight during El Dorado Canyon was re-rolled ‘on the wing’ to help out the returning `Habus’ once the strikers had reached Lakenheath.

At 0910 hrs, some four hours after the SR-71s had launched, a KC-135Q (call sign ‘Java 90’) landed at Mildenhall carrying senior members of the 9th SRW staff from Beale to witness the mission debriefing. Twenty minutes later, tankers ‘Finey 54′ and ’55’ touched down, followed at 0935 hrs by ‘Tromp 30′, which had flown a mission lasting four-and-a-half hours. One hour and 13 minutes later Shul and Watson landed in the back-up `Habu’, ‘Tromp 31’. The five remaining tankers returned over the next four-and-a-half hours, ‘Finey 51’ having flown a twelve-and-a-half hour sortie. When ‘Finey 56’ landed at 1526 hrs, El Dorado Canyon was completed, with the exception of search efforts for Capts Fernando Ribas-Domminici and Paul Lorence, whose F-111F had been lost the previous night off the coast of Libya.

The mission’s ‘take’ was processed in the MPC and then transported by a KC-135 (‘Trout 99′) to Andrews AFB, Maryland (only 25 miles from the Pentagon and the White House), where national-level officials were eagerly awaiting post-strike briefings that showed both the good and bad effects of the strike.

As mentioned earlier, the marginal weather around the Libyan capital forced another ‘Habu’ sortie to be flown the following day. This time Jerry Glasser and Ron Tabor were back-up, again in 64-17980, for Brian Shul and Walt Watson, who were the primary crew in 64-17960. Bernie Smith and Dennie Whalen were the mobile crew, charged with overseeing both launches and recoveries back into Mildenhall. However, during this sortie the primary aircraft suffered a sensor failure, and for whatever reason the back-up aircraft, which was in the air and operational, was not notified. This meant that a third mission had to be flown on Apr. 17, with Smith and Whalen as the primary crew in 64-17980, backed-up by Shul and Watson, again in 64-17960.

To preserve security, call signs were changed, with ‘Fatty’ and Lute’ being allocated to the tankers and SR-71s, respectively, for the 16 Apr. mission, and ‘Minor’ and ‘Phony’ used the next day. Photos taken in the vicinity of Benghazi by `’Tromp 30′ on Apr. 15 were released to the press, although the source was never officially admitted and image quality was purposely degraded to hide the system’s true capabilities.

Bellicose rumblings from Ghadaffi continued after the raid, and 14 months later, US intelligence services believed that Libya had received MiG-29 ‘Fulcrums’ from the USSR. This outstanding fighter, with a ground attack capability, would considerably enhance Libya’s air defence network. It was therefore decided that Det 4 should fly another series of sorties over the region to try and confirm these intelligence reports.

On Aug. 27, 28 and 30, 1987, both SR-71s were launched from Mildenhall to photograph all the Libyan bases. Tanker support for each operation consisted of three KC-135s and two KC- 10s. The tankers and the `Habus’ used the call signs ‘Mug’, ‘Sokey’ and Taffy’. Two other KC-135s (‘Gammit 99’ and ‘Myer 99’) flew courier missions to Andrews AFB on Aug. 29 and Sep. 9 to transport the ‘take’ to the Pentagon, where intelligence analysts failed to find the suspected MiGs .

Thereafter, until Dec. 21 1988, it appeared as though the Libyan leader and his regime may have learned a lesson about US intolerance towards international terrorism. However, that night, high over the small Scottish town of Lokerbie, Pan American Boeing 747 Flight 103 was blown out of the sky by a bomb that had been planted in luggage loaded onto the aircraft. In all, 259 passengers and crew an d at least 11 people on the ground were killed, making this Britain’s worst air disaster and terrorist atrocity.

Lockheed SR-71 Operations in Europe and the Middle East is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

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

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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