Events

April 26, 2012

Lockheed Martin-built Blackbirds still draw the crowds

Story and photos by Diane Betzler
Staff Writer
blackbirds4
Bill Flanagan, a board member on the Flight Test Historical Foundation and a Blackbird Airpark volunteer, sat in the cockpit of the SR-71 to give visitors a perspective of what it was like for the crewmembers who flew the reconnaissance airplane back in its day. The event was the first time the aircraft was displayed with its canopy open, which allowed visitors a clear view of the cockpit. Flanagan spent the day answering questions about the magnificent bird and its missions.

Neither the near 100-degree heat nor the ongoing Poppy Festival was enough to keep aircraft buffs away from the opportunity to view America’s two most famous spy planes on display at the Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale, Calif.

For the first time, the SR-71 and U-2D were exhibited proudly with their canopies opened – allowing visitors a clear view the cockpits.

“It was an amazing opportunity to show the technology that was developed and flight tested here in the Antelope Valley,” said Bill Flanagan, a member of the board of directors for the Flight Test Historical Foundation and a volunteer at the Blackbird Airpark.

Three Lockheed Martin-built Blackbirds stole the show Oct. 21 when close to 900 local citizens came out for the opportunity to get up close and personal with the aircraft and some of the amazing crewmembers that flew test and operational missions and were an intricate part of the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis, an event that brought America to the brink of a nuclear war some 50 years ago.

Hosted by the Flight Test Historical Foundation, the event also featured the Lockheed Martin-built F-117A, the first combat aircraft built that was virtually invisible while in flight.

The opportunity for locals to view this aircraft will soon be gone as the U.S. Air Force is calling the fighter back to Edwards Air Force Base and it will no longer be on display at the Blackbird Airpark.

Micah Salmonehi, 8, was the first visitor at the Blackbird Airpark to make his way up the portable stand to look inside the cockpit of the U-2 spy plane at the Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale, Calif., Oct. 21. It was the first time the reconnaissance aircraft was viewed with its canopy open allowing visitors to get a good look inside the cockpit. Restoration specialist J.R. Blambeck (inside cockpit) happily answered all Micah’s questions about the aircraft and what it takes to fly one. Micah said later he wants to be a pilot when he grows up.

Flanagan, who sat in the cockpit of the SR-71 gave viewers a perspective of what it was like for crewmembers while flying missions in that proud bird. Flanagan himself flew flight test missions in the spy plane from 1980 through 1985 while serving in the Air Force.

He was a lieutenant colonel assigned to Lockheed as a flight test navigator.

“People used to ask me if I worked for Lockheed and I told them, no, Lockheed works for me,” he joked, because at the time, being in the Air Force, he was the aerospace company’s customer, the Air Force had contracted with the aerospace giant to build the reconnaissance aircraft and later the stealth fighter jet.

Also on hand to sign autographs and talk about their high-in-the-sky reconnaissance and test flight missions were crewmembers from both spy planes.

U.S. Air Force U-2 pilot Louis Setter flew about 40 missions, he told those requesting his autograph that he doesn’t remember the exact number of missions he flew, “All I remember is the high altitude flameouts,” he said.

Setter said when the engines flame out the crewmembers suit freezes and the aircraft instruments quit working, “And you try to survive,” he said.

He talked about the secrecy of the program he was on and said that duty was very hard of their families.

“Our wives didn’t know what we were doing or where we were half the time,” he said.

Setter said he stayed with it because he knew how important those missions were to the country.

“The information the first U-2 flights videoed was absolutely priceless,” he said.

Dave Kerzie was also on hand to sign his autograph and answer questions. The retired test pilot flew the spy plane for Lockheed (now Lockheed Martin) and flew test flights over Edwards.

U.S. Air Force pilot Jay Murphy flew operational missions in the SR-71. When asked how many missions he flew, like Sutter, Murphy said he didn’t count them. Murphy logged flight hours and said he has 485 flight hours in the SR-71.

Murphy’s most memorable flight was while flying over Keora at about 70,000 feet and both engines flamed out.

He somehow managed to recover the aircraft and land it safely, but was told by ground control after he landed, that they didn’t think there was a way to recover from a double engine flameout.

Retired U-2 pilots signed autographs and told stories about what it was like to fly the awesome reconnaissance plane. Louis Setter (left) and Dave Kerzie spent the afternoon talking mission stories during a special open canopy display of the aircraft. The event was the first time the aircraft was displayed with its cockpit open and took place at the Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale, Calif., Oct. 21.

“I was glad they didn’t tell me that before the incident,” he grinned.

Murphy was issued a safety award by the Air Force for that amazing feat.

Air Force navigator Bill Frazier flew operational reconnaissance missions in both, the U-2 and the SR-71 airplanes, but played down his role in those missions.

“You turn the cameras on and off,” he told his autograph seekers.

Frazier said both Blackbirds were lots of fun. He said at the beginning of flight testing the aircraft, the first 20 hours of his flights experienced an emergency every time.

“It was just a string of events for about the first two months,” he said.

Mike Relia was a senior maintenance technician for the Air Force/NASA SR-71. He showed several aircraft parts and talked about how the birds were built.

“None of the aircraft parts came drilled because they were all handmade and fitted to the aircraft individually,” he said.

The U-2 and the SR-71 will remain at the Blackbird Park on 25th Street East and Avenue P for the public to visit during park hours. Each station offers a brief history of the aircraft on display

Tony Moore, Air Force Flight Test Center Museum technician, was also on hand to oversee the event and answer questions about an era long since gone.

“Most everyone thinks it’s over and out,” Moore said about the U-2 and the SR-71 aircraft. “But that’s not the case, both aircraft are still shrouded in mystery,” he said.

Throughout it all, the Cold War era and the Cuban Missile Crisis, only one life and one Blackbird was lost.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Rudolf Anderson was shot down by a Soviet nuclear cruise missile Oct. 27, 1962, the event that nearly brought the United States, Russia and Cuba to the brink of a nuclear war.

According to most reports of that event, when President John F. Kennedy, Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban President Fidel Castro realized the severity of a nuclear war, all three leaders backed down and ended the crisis. The Russians agreed to remove the missiles in Cuba that were aimed at the United States.

“The U-2 played a very important part in that event,” Flanagan said. “It flew from Edwards and took the photos that confirmed the Russians had missiles in Cuba,” he said.

 




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