Refueling the SR-71

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by Larry Grooms, special to Aerotech News

Long ago declassified, yet little known secrets of the SR-71’s Cold War spy missions burst into worldwide public view Aug. 8, 2020, in an aerospace industry organization’s flight test of coronavirus-driven conferencing.

Blending Zoom meeting technology, pandemic health protocols and cutting-edge distance learning methods, the Los Angeles — Las Vegas Chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics led off its three-segment Town Hall web show with a blast from the past. Exploding onto the video screen in his favorite Aloha shirt instead of a business suit, retired Air Force Col. Charlie Vono told tales and shared charts from his pioneering piloting years “In-Flight Refueling the SR-71 During the Cold War.”

Incorporating a brief history of the rise of aerial surveillance and airpower, beginning with American Civil War balloon observers, and trench warfare spotters and concluding with thoughts about the future, Vono tailored his presentation to be understood and helpful to a general audience as well as professionals.

Anybody thinking Vono’s first and longest-lasting assignment, piloting modified KC-135 tankers to refuel SR-71 Blackbirds in midair was either safe or easy, couldn’t begin to grasp the level of difficult when Vono showed how each aircraft was travelling at the outer and opposite outer limits of its flight envelope. In other words, the SR-71, designed to travel at Mach 3, would fall out of the sky beyond its slow end of the envelope, while the KC-135 tanker’s highest possible envelope speed was barely fast enough to stay in front of the Blackbird.

And there were complications caused by altitude, weight shifting as fuel transferred, threats of killer thunderstorms, and whatever else might happen in a mechanical way, including a tendency for some KC-135Q tankers to experience J-57 engine turbine blade failure.

A KC-135 Stratotanker refuels a SR-71 Blackbird at an unknown location. The KC-135 has been in the Air Force’s inventory since 1957, serving in many of our nation’s conflicts and supporting the Air Force’s Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance mission, over the past six decades. (Air Force photograph by Joseph Simms )

Air Force Academy graduate Vono’s first assignment was flying a KC-135 tanker in support of refueling SR-71s in their worldwide reconnaissance missions. Deployed from Beale Air Force Base, Calif., Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, and RAF Mendenhall, England, with Hill AFB, Utah, as the designated abort base, Vono’s mission profiles required topping-off the tanks of an SR-71 just after takeoff and refueling the Blackbird again when it reached altitude. On the back side, the KC-135Q crews were responsible for meeting the SR-71s leaving hostile airspace for the return trips home. Vono recalled having as many as three tankers staged to refueling an SR mission, including Cuba.

Vono recalled that KC-135Q crews lived in a world unforgiving of mission performance error, and at a time when navigation over the Pacific still required sticking a sextant tube out the flight deck ceiling for a celestial fix on location. Radio communications over vast expanses of water were iffy, and many times tanker crews and Blackbird pilots had to maintain radio silence when they felt a high need to talk. KC-135Q commanders could offer no excuses for failure to meet the SR on time and at the right place. And the tanker crews serving Blackbirds were given their priorities from authorities as high as people living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The Cold War began in 1947 and ended in 1991, but the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird era didn’t begin until 1957 and ended in 1999. Vono’s job, starting in 1977, carried through the turbulent years with the old Soviet Union and growing threats from rouge nations and rising potential threats from Communist China.

Retired from the Air Force and positions in national aerospace companies, Vono is today an AIAA Distinguished Lecturer, until recently accustomed to wearing a suit while addressing banquet halls full of colleagues in defense, technology and management. But with a new format, he now includes in his audience young students still dreaming about their future careers. Vono, whose father died when Vono was five years old, and raised by his mom in a small California Central Valley town, delivers the message that “the biggest obstacle to success in life is realizing you have a shot,” and going for it.

Looking to the nation’s future in surveillance, Vono said that while there’s speculation about building a successor to the SR-71, “it will be something without a pilot.”
 
 
 

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