‘When we went on a combat mission, we carried a sealed letter in our pocket. We were told the letters and who signed them changed from time to time and we never saw them,’ SR-71 Blackbird RSO Colonel Richard Sheffield.
After the SR-71 Blackbird mission flown by Colonels Robert (Bob) Spencer (pilot) and Richard (Butch) Sheffield (Reconnaissance Systems Officer, RSO) over Vladivostok where they collected the SA-5 radar signal (CLICK HERE and HERE to read the story) the aircraft experienced an engine failure and Spencer and Sheffield made an emergency landing in South Korea.
Some of the things that happened later were pretty funny.
The following story comes from my father Colonel Richard Sheffield’s unpublished book “The Very First” and first appeared on my Facebook Page Habubrats.
‘I gave an envelope to the base commander…. I was instructed to give this envelope out if we were ever in a tight spot and needed extra help….
‘When we were trying to get the tower to open the field and turn up the landing lights so we could land the person in the tower was speaking in broken English. He said, “no can land, field is closed.” We told him we were an RF-4 with an engine out and had no were else to land. Once we were on the runway and our eyes became accustomed to the light we saw men in black pajamas sounding the aircraft and holding machine guns. Bob asked me, “Butch, are you sure we are in South Korea?”
‘After we had sat in the aircraft for a while with the one good engine in idle and the taxi light on we saw a military auto coming down the runway at a high rate of speed and barely under control. It pulled right up in front of us and a person jumped out (he was the Base Commander) (half dressed) and we could read his lips, he was saying, “what in the f— are you doing here?” Bob said back to him, once we had the wheels in chocks and the engine shut down, “what did you want me to do, ditch it?”
‘When we gave the abort code over HF radio, we first gave the code for Kunsan, South Korea. Soon we saw that we did not have enough fuel to make it to Kunsan and decided to go to Taegu. I had never heard of Taegu and didn’t know where it was located. Bob knew, he must have used it when flying the U-2. Taegu was so small and out of the way that they did not have an abort code. We gave the abort code for a base not on the list of emergency landing places over the HF. So neither the Kadena command post nor Taegu knew where we were going to land. In other words, Taegu had no idea who we were or where we came from. The picture of the SR taken at night with the glow of a fire truck behind it must have been what we looked like. It is hard to imagine what the SR looked like sitting on the runway at Taegu in the middle of the night.
‘When we went on a combat mission, we carried a sealed letter in our pocket. We were told the letters and who signed them changed from time to time and we never saw them. Some crewmembers speculated that CINCPAC, the Air Force Chief or even the President signed them. I do not know, but whoever signed the one I gave to the base Commander at Taegu sure got his attention. From the time he saw it until we left the next day, he could not do enough for us.
‘The mission package I had in the cockpit was Top Secret. I ask the Base Commander to take me to his vault so I could lock it up. I could not turn it over to him because he was not cleared nor did he have a need-to-know where we had just flown in from.
‘He said we don’t have a vault to hold Top Secret data. So here I was, in a full pressure suit with a package of classified data walking around under the aircraft. With the pressure suit on you can’t get into an auto so they put us in the back of a pickup truck and took us to the command post, which was the most secure area on base.
‘Once in the Command Post I explained my problem to one of the controllers and he said I might be able to help you. It was now about 2 A.M. He called the plan’s officer who had a vault and got him out of bed, he lived in town, and he agreed after much convincing by me to come out to the base and help me.
‘While this was going on, the Kadena Command Post was calling on the secure line to ask me what happened and what kind of equipment they had at Taegu to help get us out of there as soon as possible. I had no idea what they had at Taegu, I had never heard of it until a few hours before.
‘Finally, a Major showed up from plans, we wrapped up the classified data and locked it in his “Top Secret” safe. I never did know if it was really a Top Secret safe, but he said it was and it was located in a secure area.
‘It was now almost daybreak, and we were going to fly back to Kadena that day and needed sleep. I had finally gotten out of the pressure suit and was just settling into bed when the Command Post wanted to talk some more to me. I had told them not to bother Bob; he had to fly and needed some rest. They asked if Taegu had a 40-TON LOADER. I told them, why you don’t ask the command post persons, they live here.
‘Soon aircraft started landing, two KC-135’s and one C-130 with a new engine. One of the KC-135s flew the SA-5 data back to NSA. We had told the guards on the aircraft not to let anyone near it without our approval, so they wouldn’t let our own Air Force people on it to fix it. So Bob went out and cleared the people onto the aircraft.
‘They changed the engine in record time and got us out of there the next day. We buzzed the field and flew back to Kadena.’
Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller, Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Facebook Page Habubrats for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.
Photo credit: NASA and U.S. Air Force