Slow-speed SR-71 flyby

Discussion in 'Modern' started by RabidAlien, Jan 22, 2011.

  1. RabidAlien

    RabidAlien Active Member

    Apr 27, 2008
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    Hurst, Texas
    Got this in an email today (a video clip would have been priceless!):

    Brian Shul, Retired SR-71 Pilot, via Plane and Pilot Magazine

    As a former SR-71 pilot, and a professional keynote speaker, the

    question I'm most often asked is "How fast would that SR-71 fly?" I can

    be assured of hearing that question several times at any event I attend.

    It's an interesting question, given the aircraft's proclivity for speed,

    but there really isn't one number to give, as the jet would always give

    you a little more speed if you wanted it to. It was common to see 35

    miles a minute. Because we flew a programmed Mach number on most

    missions, and never wanted to harm the plane in any way, we never let it

    run out to any limits of temperature or speed. Thus, each SR-71 pilot

    had his own individual high speed that he saw at some point on some

    mission. I saw mine over Libya when Khadafy fired two missiles my way,

    and max power was in order. Let's just say that the plane truly loved

    speed, and effortlessly took us to Mach numbers we hadn't previously


    So it was with great surprise, when, at the end of one of my

    presentations, someone asked: What was the slowest you ever flew the

    Blackbird? This was a first. After giving it some thought, I was

    reminded of a story I had never shared before, and relayed the


    I was flying the SR-71 out of RAF Mildenhall, England, with my

    back-seater, Walt Watson; we were returning from a mission over Europe

    and the Iron Curtain, when we received a radio transmission from home

    base. As we scooted across Denmark in three minutes, we learned that a

    small RAF base in the English countryside had requested an SR-71

    fly-past. The air cadet commander there was a former Blackbird pilot,

    and thought it would be a motivating moment for the young lads to see

    the mighty SR-71 perform a low approach. No problem; we were happy to

    it. After a quick aerial refueling over the North Sea, we proceeded to

    find the small airfield.

    Walter had a myriad of sophisticated navigation equipment in the back

    seat, and began to vector me toward the field. Descending to subsonic

    speeds, we found ourselves over a densely wooded area in a slight haze.

    Like most former WWII British airfields, the one we were looking for had

    a small tower and little surrounding infrastructure. Walter told me we

    were close, and that I should be able to see the field, but I saw

    nothing. Nothing but trees as far as I could see in the haze. We got a

    little lower, and I pulled the throttles back from the 325 knots we were

    With the gear up, anything under 275 was just uncomfortable. Walt said

    we were practically over the field, yet there was nothing in my

    windscreen. I banked the jet and started a gentle circling maneuver in

    hopes of picking up anything that looked like a field. Meanwhile,

    below, the cadet commander had taken the cadets up on the catwalk of the

    tower, in order to get a prime view of the fly-past. It was a quiet,

    still day, with no wind and partial gray overcast. Walter continued to

    give me indications that the field should be below us, but, in the

    overcast and haze, I couldn't see it. The longer we continued to peer

    out the window and circle, the slower we got. With our power back, the

    awaiting cadets heard nothing. I must have had good instructors in my

    flying career, as something told me I better cross-check the gauges. As

    I noticed the airspeed indicator slide below 160 knots, my heart

    stopped, and my adrenalin-filled left hand pushed two throttles full

    forward. At this point, we weren't really flying, but were falling in a

    slight bank. Just at the moment, both afterburners lit with a

    thunderous roar of flame (and what a joyous feeling that was), and the

    aircraft fell into full view of the shocked observers on the tower.

    Shattering the still quiet of that morning, they now had 107 feet of

    fire-breathing titanium in their face, as the plane leveled and

    accelerated, in full burner, on the tower side of the infield, closer

    than expected, maintaining what could only be described as some sort of

    ultimate knife-edge pass.

    Quickly reaching the field boundary, we proceeded back to Mildenhall

    without incident. We didn't say a word for those next 14 minutes.

    After landing, our commander greeted us, and we were both certain he was

    reaching for our wings. Instead, he heartily shook our hands and said

    the commander had told him it was the greatest SR-71 fly-past he had

    ever seen, especially how we had surprised them with such a precise

    maneuver that could only be described as breathtaking. He said that

    some of the cadets' hats were blown off, and the sight of the plan form

    of the plane in full afterburner, dropping right in front of them, was

    unbelievable. Walt and I both understood the concept of breathtaking

    very well, that morning, and sheepishly replied that they were just

    excited to see our low approach.

    As we retired to the equipment room to change from space suits to flight

    suits, we just sat there: We hadn't spoken a word since the pass.

    Finally, Walter looked at me and said, "One hundred fifty-six knots.

    What did you see?" Trying to find my voice, I stammered, "One hundred

    fifty-two." We sat in silence for a moment. Then Walt said, "Don't

    ever do that to me again!" And I never did.

    A year later, Walter and I were having lunch in the Mildenhall Officers'

    club, and overheard an officer talking to some cadets about an SR-71

    fly-past that he had seen, one day. Of course, by now the story

    included kids falling off the tower, and screaming as the heat of the

    singed their eyebrows. Noticing our Habu patches, as we stood there

    lunch trays in our hands, he asked us to verify to the cadets that such

    a thing had occurred. Walt just shook his head and said, "It was

    probably just a routine low approach; they're pretty impressive in that

    plane". Impressive indeed.

    Little did I realize, after relaying this experience to my audience that

    day, that it would become one of the most popular and most requested

    stories. It's ironic that people are interested in how slow the world's

    fastest jet can fly. Regardless of your speed, however, it's always a

    good idea to keep that cross-check up -- and keep your Mach up, too.
  2. GrauGeist

    GrauGeist Well-Known Member

    Aug 29, 2008
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    Public Safety Automotive Technician
    Redding, California
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    What a great story!

    I bet that was a sight to behold, blasting out of nowhere like that...

    Thanks for posting it! :thumbleft:
  3. Matt308

    Matt308 Glock Perfection
    Staff Member Moderator

    Apr 12, 2005
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    Washington State
    Good story.
  4. Aaron Brooks Wolters

    Aaron Brooks Wolters Well-Known Member

    Jul 28, 2007
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    Auto Restoration
    Abingdon, VA.
    Excellent story RA!!!!!:thumbright: Thank you for sharing.:cool:
  5. bobbysocks

    bobbysocks Well-Known Member

    Feb 28, 2010
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    love it! "I meant to do that...yeah, that's the ticket..."
  6. Gnomey

    Gnomey World Travelling Doctor
    Staff Member Moderator

    Nov 28, 2004
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    Portsmouth / Royal Deeside, UK
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    Great story! 8)

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