Something has happened to the country that derided the “improbable” and eagerly reached for the “impossible”. General Buck Adams (Ret.) did not hesitate to speculate that the US has become so risk-adverse that what was possible a few decades ago, can no longer be achieved.
The General captivated a standing-room-only audience at the University Club of DC recently with his personal experience stories as a SR-71(Blackbird) Pilot. As the youngest SAC General and the youngest SR-71 pilot, he still holds the Los Angeles to London speed record when he was 28 years old at 3 hours, 37 minutes and 39 seconds, an average speed of 1,435.59 mph and includes 2 mid-air refuelings at greatly reduced speeds. They crossed the Atlantic Ocean at Mach 3.2 — 2,200 mph.
Described as the most expensive jet airplane this country has ever built, General Adams described the first 15 exhilarating minutes of a flight this way: “Release brakes, lift off at 30 degrees and within 15 minutes you are 16 miles above the earth.”
What still astounds the General is that this highly sophisticated airplane that even today has never met its match, was designed on a slide rule. Even more stunning is that the Blackbird’s inaugural flight was a mere 22 months after the contract was awarded to Lockheed. Whether the technological capability is still there or not is debatable, but no one disagrees that the gears of the government grind even more slowly today and it’s unlikely a contractor could get past the now-routine bid award protests within 22 months, let alone deliver the product.
Everything about this plane was new; new engines, new titanium skin, new pilot protective gear, new avionics, new fuel, new life support systems, new fuel tanker aircraft, and of course new stealth technology. General Adams is particularly impressed with the aircraft’s designer “Kelly” Johnson, who seemed to have had an “innate understanding of what it took to build a great airplane.”
To lighten the payload, the SR-71 had no insulation and the temperature on the windows of the cockpit reached 700 degrees F. It also famously had no offensive weapons, relying instead on its ability to take evasive action by outrunning any missile fired at it. As General Adams humorously put it, “if we saw a missile headed our way, our defensive measures were to pick up our feet.”
Recently unclassified information reports that the SR-71 recorded top speed of Mach 3.5 or about 2,700 mph. The Pratt & Whitney J58 engines that powered this beast each contain more horsepower than the engines on the Queen Mary super-liner.
The rare titanium ore needed for the aircraft skin was obtained from the USSR under a grand subterfuge and the Lockheed discoveries about working with this unique metal back then are still used in modern fighter aircraft. Because the aircraft skin stretched nearly a foot in flight, design engineers incorporated a loosely fitted corrugated skin to allow vertical and horizontal stretching. Because of the loose fit, the SR-71 would only be partially filled with fuel on take-off since so much would leak onto the runway. Once airborne, their first order of business was to meet up with the tankers to refuel, only then could they head out to their mission.
The General concludes with acknowledging what he describes as the real heroes of the SR-71 – “Kelly Johnson and his team at the Lockheed Skunk Works who built a phenomenal aircraft that could exceed Mach 3 plus withstand 1200 degrees F and the maintenance crews who kept the best aircraft ever built in the air”. The General’s SR-71 is now parked in the Udvar-Hazy Museum near Dulles Airport