PALMDALE, Calif. – On April 26 the Flight Test Historical Foundation hosted an SR-71 and U-2 50-Year Cold War Commemoration at Blackbird Airpark located at U.S. Air Force Plant 42.
The 50-year mark celebrates the first flight of the SR-71 Blackbird out of Palmdale, Calif., December 22, 1964.
“This is an opportunity for us to showcase Blackbird Airpark to the local community,” said George Welsh, Air Force Flight Test Museum curator. “These aircraft are extremely unique and they all have a direct connection to this area, to this community, to Plant 42. It’s a great opportunity to remember people who were involved with these aircraft, to try to preserve their legacy.”
The Clarence L. Kelly Johnson Blackbird Airpark is the public annex of the Air Force Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base. The event, in addition to being an educational opportunity, served as a fundraiser for the museum.
“The funds raised will help us relocate outside the [West] gate at Edwards and open up to the public,” said Welsh. “That is our goal, to get this amazing collection outside the gate so the public can view it.”
Near the static display aircraft at Saturday’s event, a tent was set up for presentations by various current and retired A-12, SR-71, U-2, F-117 and F-22 pilots. Visitors lined up to have posters, books, t-shirts, models and other memorabilia signed by the pilots.
Among those pilots was special guest Robert Gilliland, a retired test pilot for Lockheed Martin. Gilliland piloted the SR-71 out of Palmdale. Gilliland was presented with a “Bronze Skunk,” an award that is rarely given, by Lockheed Martin Skunk Works leadership. Gilliland had logged more experimental supersonic flight test time above Mach 2 and Mach 3 than any other pilot before taking to the controls of the SR-71.
Gilliland actually graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
“We were the first ones that could volunteer for the U.S. Air Force so I was sworn in as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force and they sent us down to Randolph Field (now Randolph, AFB, Texas, to train with all the West Pointers,” said Gilliland.
At Randolph Field, Gilliland performed his first solo flight in a T-6.
Many years later, Gilliland flew the SR-71 for the very first time out of Palmdale, Calif., taking the aircraft to Mach 1.5 and an altitude of 50,000 feet. That flight was in 1964, fifty years ago, and was one of many flights in aircraft that could perform at or above Mach 3.
“We had a family of Mach 3 plus airplanes and the most famous is the SR-71,” said Gilliland.
During his career, Gilliland flew the SR-71, YF-12 and A-12. He explained that flying supersonic aircraft presents unique challenges. For instance, their speed causes the aircraft to become very hot, and when aluminum is heated, it becomes weak.
“The faster you go, the hotter things get. They all had this speed, so instead of making them out of aluminum, like all the other planes were, we made our airplanes out of titanium. Its 93% titanium in the thing,” said Gilliland.
Within that Mach 3 family, each aircraft had its own unique qualities.
“One of them was an interceptor,” said Gilliland. “We only built three of them as an interceptor that would shoot missiles up high and go down and shoot something coming in over the water at 500 feet while we were at 85,000.”
But the SR-71 was “best by far” as it underwent continual improvements. Its mission – global strategic reconnaissance, required it to travel “half way around the world in a hurry.”
“That’s the one the military kept in use under six presidents, for so long. It helped win the Cold War,” said Gilliland. “I flew the SR-71 out of Edwards for a long, long time. We had a secret hangar, we couldn’t brief anybody on anything or tell them about anything. Only one man at Edwards learned about it and he was the two-star general.”
Gilliland encouraged current and future test pilots to increase their general knowledge of aircraft structure, aerodynamics and thermodynamics.
“Study hard and learn what you can. I still love learning all the time, even today. That would be a big help, in any endeavor – not just being a test pilot.”
All the guest pilots shared their stories throughout the day.
In March of 1957 retired Lt. Col. Tony Bevacqua performed his first flight in the U-2 Dragon Lady.
“I stayed there until June when they had six U-2’s built and accepted by the Air Force and took those to Laughlin Air Force Base [Texas], and from then on, all the training was done at Laughlin,” said Bevacqua.
From 1966 to 1973, Bevacqua “upgraded” to the SR-71.
“The U-2 is a great airplane and still flying. The SR-71 was super fast and just a magnificent airplane also,” said Bevacqua. “And yes, I preferred the SR.”
Retired Col. Ken Collins had his first flight in the A-12 in February of 1963. The A-12 was the predecessor to the SR-71. After six years and 700 hours in the A-12, Collins became an SR-71 pilot, which he flew for the next six years out of Beale Air Force Base, Calif.
“The A-12 flew higher and faster and it was the first one, so it was sort of the favorite that way,” said Collins. “Just being part of [the black program] is really an honor, it is a privilege. I think that way about the airplanes, both of them, and I’m very fortunate. There’s only one or two people that flew both of them.”
Collins shared that his most valuable lesson from that time was “team work and confidence in the engineers and pilots.” According to Collins, to be involved in aviation, you’ve got to be serious about it.
“We’ve got so much of this drone stuff coming in, it’s sort of hard to talk to people about being pilots,” said Collins. “It’s necessary, they’re good systems, but I’d rather be flying the airplane.”
“You consider the age of the day, the people we had involved like Kelly Johnson and Ben Ridge and test pilots like Bill Park. We don’t have those people anymore and we don’t have that technology coming up.”
Retired Lt. Col. Bill Flanagan is a 1976 graduate of the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards. From 1980 to 1985, Flanagan flew in the SR-71 as a back-seater.
“It was a dream come true, flew it for five years,” said Flanagan. “I got here exactly at the right time because we were doing a lot of really new stuff to modernize the airplane, which was built in the 60s. We converted it in the 80s even though the plane looks the same, we put all new digital technology in it. It’s still, to this day, the fastest and highest flying airplane in the world.”
Flanagan remembers working with NASA as they were building the space shuttle “next door.” For several flights, the SR-71 served as a stand-in to practice tracking a high-speed target coming into Edwards.
“We could not slow down as fast as the space shuttle did, but we actually flew about four flights where NASA was tracking us, this was before SES-1,” said Flanagan. “After we slowed up and flew back to Edwards, all the NASA astronauts and their chase planes wanted to have their pictures taken next to the SR-71. They said, ‘this is the coolest looking airplane we’ve ever seen.'”
During his time in the Air Force, Flanagan flew the RF-4 Fantom, F-111, F-16, F-14, F-15, B-52, and many more. After his retirement from the Air Force, He went to work for Northrop Grumman where he flew the B-2 Stealth Bomber for 10 years and the C-135.
But, the SR-71 was by far the fastest, traveling at 35 miles a minute.
“Every other airplane I’ve ever flown cruised at a maximum of 10 miles a minute. So it was like flying something completely different than I did in all my time in the Air Force. It was so far ahead of its time, it was a dream come true. From the time I was a kid, I wanted to fly jets and the Air Force allowed me to. The test pilot school allowed me to open up everything to horizons I never would’ve dreamed possible. I owe it all to the Air Force.”
In other parts of the commemoration visitors could see the traveling Gary Powers U-2 exhibit inside the gift shop.
“Gary Powers was a CIA pilot who was doing over-flights of Russia back in the late 50’s and he was actually shot down and taken prisoner,” said Welsh. “Months later, after the Russians paraded him on T.V. and did a trail, we did a swap, we had a soviet spy and got [Powers] back.”
That incident strained already “cold” relationships between the U.S. and Soviet Union.
Powers was later killed in an aviation accident and today, his son runs an organization dedicated to preserving the history of the Cold War. The exhibit will be on display for around three months and is open to the public Friday through Sunday.
“It’s important to understand what’s happened here in the past,” said John Kelly, Troop 594 Boy Scout Master and attendee. “A lot of these really cool airplanes all started here in the aerospace valley.”