Visitors to the March Field Air Museum were given a special treat April 6 and 7, when former pilots of the famous SR-71 Blackbird stopped by to talk about what it was like to fly the world’s fastest aircraft.
The aircraft, which is one of several that have been retired and put on display at various locations throughout the country, is one of the many highlights that visitors to the museum can expect to see on a regular basis.
Former Blackbird pilots visit the museum each year to talk about their experiences with the aircraft, but according to museum officials for this year’s event, they tried something new to boost audience participation.
Using creative space management techniques, the museum caretakers skillfully arranged the seating around the Blackbird so the attendees could almost “feel” its majestic presence. Former SR-71 pilot, retired Lt. Col. Gerald Glasser, sat in the pilot seat and answered questions while demonstrating flight operations using a remote camera setup to view the cockpit.
Shannon Kendrick, an emergency medical technician for the State of California and visitor to the museum, was lucky to get her SR-71 magazine autographed by Glasser.
“This is awesome,” said Kendrick. “I didn’t realize it was so big. This aircraft has always been one of my favorites.”
The small band of pilots were happy to talk about how they became pilots in the aircraft, the missions they flew and some of their more personal thoughts about their place in history.
“I was in the F-5 program at Edwards Air Force Base in Palmdale, Calif.,” said Glasser. “It was the home of the Space Shuttle program and the B-1 Lancer, with the SR-71 depot across the runway. I was lucky enough to get invited over by the Blackbird commander to get a hands-on feel of the aircraft. When I strapped in, the commander said that I should apply to the program because they needed pilots with my skills.”
The selection process for potential SR-71 pilots was about six months long. We had to endure physicals, psychological evaluations, a seven-hour long simulator flight and two evaluation flights.
“I thought I did my best during the evaluations, but I never thought I would be selected. Six months later, I got the call that I was selected for the SR-71 program – that was back in 1980. All of the pilots that wanted to fly the Blackbird felt the same way. You just never know when hard work and good fortune come together,” added Glasser.
Not all of the Blackbird pilots were fighter jocks. Some of the entrants piloted the B-52 Stratofortress, F-4 Phantom, F-111 Aardvark and Tactical Reconnaissance -1 (TR-1), an aircraft similar in design to the U-2 spy plane. According to Glasser, the SR-71 program was highly successful because of the varied backgrounds of the pilot group. Many of the pilots flew missions during the 1970s and 80s.
The shoot down of U-2 pilot Gary Powers over Soviet airspace, resulted in the signing of a treaty prohibiting military over flight rights between the two countries. At this juncture, the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. Air Force determined that a new and improved aircraft would need to be developed in order to continue aerial surveillance activities. This brought about the concept of a high altitude, high speed aircraft that could easily evade enemy pursuit or air defense weapons.
The A-12 Spy plane, a popular forerunner to the SR-71, was developed in January 1960.
This aircraft met speed and altitude requirements, but was unable to completely fulfill its mission because of the overflight restrictions imposed by the treaty with the Soviet Union.
It was at that time  the Air Force initially reviewed the mock-up design of the SR-71, primarily due to its peripheral camera. It allowed the aircraft to fly reconnaissance, parallel to Soviet [or any] airspace without breaching sovereign airspace. The CIA submitted an order for twelve of these aircraft.
President Johnson formally announced the existence of the Blackbird in July 1964 and in October, the SR-71 prototype was delivered to Palmdale for continued development. In December, it was determined that Beale AFB, Calif., would be the SR-71’s home base. The SR-71A completed its first flight with test pilot Bob Gilliland at the controls, Dec. 22.
In 1967, A-12s flew reconnaissance missions out of Kadena Air Base, Japan, in support of “Black Shield,” during the Vietnam conflict. Later that year, a “fly-off” competition was held between the SR-71 and the A-12, with the SR-71 prevailing. In February 1968, SR-71s were flown in to replace the A-12s, with its first operational mission flown on March 21.
Use of the SR-71 continued into the 1970s and 80s, but not before accumulating several speed and flight altitude records – notably, 85,068 feet altitude, in horizontal flight and speed over an established course ( London to Los Angeles) in 3 hours and 47 minutes.
Personal experiences and memorable missions flown by pilots at the March Field Air Museum event included one flown by Lt. Col. Rod Dyckman:
“During my time in the airplane, I’ve had four or five engines failures – fortunately, not all at the same time,” said Dyckman. “One of those instances happened when I was flying a mission around Cuba. When one of my engines failed, I thought I was going to have to ditch the Blackbird in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, because my air refueling tanker had already departed the airspace and the naval station at New Orleans was too far off. So, with quick thinking, I radioed the tanker and directed it to do what is called a “fighter directed” turn back toward us. We were able to refuel and get the aircraft back to the coastline. It was quite a task to refuel this airplane on a single engine.”
“For me, the Libya mission we flew in 1986 was one of those memorable events,” said Glasser. “The sortie had some major refueling and threat issues, but my Reconnaissance Systems Officer, Ron Tabor and I, were very privileged to fly the successful seven hour mission.” He also recalled the thrills flying a high Mach supersonic mission, four sunsets and three sunrise sorties in the West – shuttle astronauts only get to see sunrises in the East.
“The aircraft is reasonably easy to fly but difficult to manage because there is so much going on systems-wise, that must be continually analyzed,” added Glasser. “You’re paid to manage the airplane, think four hundred miles ahead of the profile and get the bird home safely. You have to really challenge yourself to stay focused and concentrate on the big picture. The RSOs really deserve the credit. They were the “conductors of the orchestra” by providing the information. We, (the pilots) were the first violins, just focused on keeping the pointed end in the right direction and getting the aircraft home.”
Officials at the March Field Air Museum will continue to improve on the SR-71 event, along with other displays designed to attract aircraft enthusiasts of all ages.