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Hunting the Habu

Or 'The SR-71 in my back yard', by Bob Archer

The Lockheed SR-71 was a familiar sight above the skies of East Anglia for almost sixteen years. Operating from the southwest corner of RAF Mildenhall, the small detachment was one of just three locations worldwide that regularly hosted this marvellous aircraft. Air Force crews associated with the programme applied the nickname 'Habu', after a deadly poisonous snake that inhabits the island of Okinawa. The general public in the area around Mildenhall preferred the term 'Blackbird', as it was something which most were more familiar with. Throughout its operational career, the SR-71 programme was known as 'Senior Crown' for budgetary purposes, although the name was not widely known outside of official corridors. The appearance of the first SR-71 in the United Kingdom was as widely publicised, as was its departure from service sixteen years later. In between times, the SR-71 was, for many including the author, a significant part of aviation in the Mildenhall locality, albeit shrouded in a veil of secrecy.

The SR-71 was an aircraft of superlatives - it was the fastest, highest-flying manned reconnaissance vehicle of all time. Only satellites flew operationally at a higher altitude! The SR-71 and its personnel created their own aurora; flight crews wore flying clothing identical to that of astronauts - no wonder, as the pilot and Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO) routinely flew on the edge of space. The aircraft itself looked like no other, with its blended surfaces and stealth like appearance. In fact the SR-71 was one of the most un-stealthiest of designs, producing one of the largest radar signatures ever detected on the Federal Aviation Agencies long-range radars! Due to the extreme heat from the exhaust plume, FAA controllers could easily track an SR-71 at ranges of several hundred miles when flown at its operational altitude. The Soviet Union tried to send interceptors within parameters, although none of their air-to-air missiles were ever fired, as the SR-71 was so fast; when cruising at Mach 3+, no missile would have been able to catch up! Only a lucky strike could have brought down an SR-71, and none ever did.

Blackbirds by numbers

As a civilian regularly watching SR-71 operations at Mildenhall, from outside of the base, it was an aircraft that captured the imagination like no other. Always guaranteed to draw a crowd, many of the workforce in the industrial complex close to the end of runway 29 at RAF Mildenhall took their lunch breaks to coincide with the return of the Blackbird from a mission. Many had seen, and heard, the familiar tell-tale sights and sounds of a typical SR-71 departure. Knowing that many missions were four or five hours duration, the casual observer did not have to possess the mind of Einstein to work out an approximate time of return. All too often, an 08:00 departure signified a return five or so hours later. This was not always the case, but many times the SR-71 would land back at Mildenhall around 13:00 - perfect timing for the astute photographer, particularly if the pilot and RSO were happy to perform an overshoot. Apart from the pleasure derived by the crowd of onlookers, the ground support technicians preferred to be able to work on an aircraft that had cooled slightly, which an overshoot helped to produce. At altitude, the external surfaces of the SR-71 heated up significantly, often reaching temperatures of 316° centigrade (600° Fahrenheit,) resulting in the titanium metal used in its construction retaining some of the heat once back on the ground.

For the photographer, the dilemma was whether to be under the approach to shoot the aircraft in landing configuration, possibly more than once if overshoots were performed, or to be at the departure end for some spectacular lift-off shots. However, being a resident in the locality, your author was often spoilt for choice, although the opportunity to photograph the beast was never taken for granted. From a personal viewpoint, I must have seen the aircraft fly well in excess of two hundred times. Sometimes this was from home, other times from work, although on most occasions this was at RAF Mildenhall, as the prospect of seeing the aircraft was rarely missed. The midday landing back at Mildenhall often just happened to dovetail neatly with my lunch break!

Tanker pilot's eye view of 64-17962 being refuelled over the North Sea in September 1976. A typical five-hour mission would require two primary and one back-up Boeing KC-135Q Stratotankers, with a fourth on standby at Mildenhall. [Photo Bob Archer collection]

Measuring 107 feet in length, the SR-71 was an extremely long, thin aircraft, with its two huge Pratt and Whitney J-58 axial-flow turbojets, each producing 32,500 pounds of thrust, buried inside their blended nacelles, spoiling an otherwise perfect delta-wing design. Pratt and Whitney engineers, working in conjunction with Lockheed's 'Skunk Works' personnel, conducted studies, and determined that less than twenty percent of the total thrust needed to fly at Mach 3+ was produced by the basic engine itself. The remainder was the product of the unique design of the engine inlet and 'moveable spike' system at the front of the engine nacelles, and by the ejector nozzles at the exhaust, which burnt air compressed in the engine bypass system. The result was an extremely noisy aircraft, especially on take-off, and one whose reheat signature produced a distinctive set of diamond-pattern shock waves. Total weight of the aircraft for a mission was usually in excess of fifty tons, of which almost forty per cent was JP7 fuel. Despite the terrific power produced by the engines on reheat, the SR-71 was reluctant to depart the runway until several thousand feet of concrete had passed beneath the sleek fuselage. Almost as soon as the aircraft had become airborne, the pilot would bank slightly to starboard, offering the waiting photographers a wonderful view of the diamond shock waves. Within seconds the massive engines had propelled the aircraft into the sky to rendezvous with its first tanker, at the start of another classified reconnaissance task.

The SR-71 was clearly an aircraft whose advanced design was of monumental proportions. Kelly Johnson, the then head of the legendary Skunk Works, managed to develop technological advancement in aeronautical design that computers of the 21st century would find challenging. Even today, no air arm has an aircraft type to match the SR-71, which was a child of the late 1950s. The first SR-71A was delivered to Beale AFB, California on 10 May 1966, with operational sorties by USAF personnel beginning on 21 March 1968. The 4200th Strategic Wing operated the type until 25 June 1966, when many of the four digit unit designations were replaced. In its place, the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing was reformed as the primary reconnaissance unit in residence.

SR-71s were forward deployed to Kadena AB, Okinawa, for operations over North Vietnam, and to monitor other potentially hostile nations in South East Asia. Detachment 1 of the 9th SRW was formed at Kadena to control the activities of the deployed Blackbirds. Initially the SR-71 was a total stranger to Europe. However, events in the Middle East in 1973 resulted in sorties being flown from and to the United States to provide the US government with an overview of the war between Israel and her neighbours. The conflict involved Egypt, Jordan, and Syria combining to invade Israel during the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, although some timely intelligence by SR-71s operating from Griffiss AFB, New York, enabled the US to provide her ally with priceless information. In fact the data obtained by the SR-71 crews was so important that Israel was able to adjust her forces accordingly and win the campaign. The missions also highlighted the need for the US to be able to utilise air bases in Europe as forward operating locations for reconnaissance sorties. At the time, an SR-71 was reported to have diverted to RAF Upper Heyford during the operation, although no photographic evidence exists, and this is highly likely this was just wishful thinking on the part of the local aviation community.

64-17972 about to depart Mildenhall on 12 September 1974 at the completion of the 'Blackbird's' first visit to the UK. The aircraft set a speed record from London to Los Angeles, a distance of 5,645 miles in a staggering 3 hours 47 minutes and 39 seconds for an average speed of 1,480 miles per hour. Notice the huge interest which the aircraft generated at Mildenhall.

Negotiations between the United States and the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) about operating 'occasionally' from the United Kingdom were agreed in principle during 1974. However the feasibility of such operations still needed to be evaluated. The US decided to send an aircraft to England, but to enable the operation to raise little suspicion as to the true nature of the visit, the flight was to be staged under the full glare of publicity. The two trans-Atlantic legs were flown to enable the SR-71 crews to capture the fastest crossing time - between New York and London for the outward sortie, and the distance from London to Los Angeles for the homeward section. On 1 September 1974 Majors James V. Sullivan, pilot, and Noel F. Widdifield, RSO, crossed the starting line in 64-17972 above New York at approximately 80,000 feet and speed in excess of 2,000 miles per hour. Exactly 1 hour 54 minutes and 56.4 seconds later, they had set a new world speed record. The average speed was 1,817 mph over the 3,488-mile course, slowing to refuel just once from a Boeing KC-135Q Stratotanker. The aircraft landed at Farnborough, where it was the prime static display exhibit at the bi-annual SBAC event. It marked the first time the secret plane had been on public display outside of the United States. Another historic speed record was set on the return journey, when Capt Harold B. Adams, pilot, and Major William Machorek, RSO, set a speed record from London to Los Angeles. They flew the 5,645 miles in 3 hours 47 minutes and 39 seconds for an average speed of 1,480 miles per hour. The difference in the two speed records was due to refuelling requirements, and having to reduce speed over major US cities. Despite precautions, a large number of people in the Los Angeles area reported broken windows due to the sonic boom. The aircraft arrived almost four hours before its departure from London, due to the eight-hour time difference between the UK and California. The departure airfield in the UK was RAF Mildenhall, which enabled 9th SRW personnel to conduct an unhindered evaluation.

Even more important than the record flights was the success of the feasibility study into operations from RAF Mildenhall. The US notified the Mod that it would like to begin operations on an ad-hoc basis. The Mod approved the request in principle, but insisted that operations be restricted to a maximum of twenty days in duration, and ministerial approval was required for each visit. Initially, SR-71 sorties were rare, and generally only lasted a few days. The first operational SR-71 to deploy to Mildenhall began when 64-17972 returned on 20 April 1976 for a ten-day stay. The station also housed a single U-2R operation at the time, with the aircraft being hangared on the south side of the airfield (normally as soon as it landed, to enable its precious film to be extracted from the cameras). The assignment of an occasional SR-71 deployment was kept separate, although the two aircraft were operated from the same area. The U-2R needed no aerial support, as its glider-like capabilities enabled ten-hour sorties to be flown with ease. The SR-71, however, required the presence of several KC-135Q tankers, which carried the special JP7 fuel, unique to the Blackbird. The 17th BW operated the KC-135Qs at Beale AFB during 1975 and 1976, until these were reassigned to the 100th ARW in September 1976. The only advanced warning to the Mildenhall enthusiasts of an imminent SR-71 arrival was the sudden appearance of a number of KC-135Qs.

Detachment 4

Tasking of SR-71 missions was approved at the highest level, with locations of primary interest being situated behind the Iron Curtain, in particular East Germany, and of course the Soviet Union. Whereas the SR-71 had overflown North Vietnam to obtain data, overflights could not take place above eastern European countries. Therefore SR-71 missions were restricted to observing activities from the periphery, by flying over international waters, or friendly territory. Nine visits took place during the 1970s, although as the decade drew to a close, the need for additional, lengthier stays began to become apparent. 64-17979 departed Mildenhall for home on 2 May 1979, the day before the Labour government was swept from power, and Margaret Thatcher became the new Prime Minister. The new administration was more amenable towards the US extending the UK SR-71 operation, although initially this was undertaken on a gradual basis. The final deployment of 1979 was by 64-17976, which arrived on 18 October and stayed for twenty-six days. Ahead of this symbolic deployment, Detachment 4 of the 9th SRW was formed at Mildenhall during March 1979. The unit became responsible for the ongoing U-2R operation, with one aircraft almost permanently in residence, as well as the occasional SR-71 presence.

Always a crowd pleaser - 64-17967 adjacent to the static display at Mildenhall Air Fete in May 1989. The SR-71 was traditionally parked alongside the Det 4 hangar throughout each Air Fete, with the large sales booth strategically positioned nearby. Note the legend 'Home of the Blackbird' on the banner - guaranteed to sell thousands of souvenirs.

Throughout 1980, the duration of SR-71 deployments lengthened, and by the end of the year, the Detachment was virtually operating the type full-time. This increased even more during 1981, and on 5 April 1982 the Ministry of Defence received Prime Ministerial approval to allow Detachment 4 to operate on a permanent basis with two SR-71s assigned. However, the Mod still retained the final approval of the more sensitive missions. The aircraft continued to operate from the hangar complex on the south side, but it became apparent that a permanent, more suitable pair of barns would need to be constructed. Work on these began in 1985, with 64-17962 having the honour of christening the new complex upon returning from a mission on 8 August.

Whereas the United Kingdom was the SR-71's primary operating base in Europe, the extremely changeable, and sometimes unpredictable weather conditions called for a number of alternate locations to be established. SR-71 operations frequently took the aircraft above the Baltic Sea, and around the top of Norway into the cold arctic region to monitor military complexes in northern Russia. Therefore the US approached the Norwegian government, who agreed in principle that in an emergency their bases could be used. The first occasion when an aircraft diverted was on 13 August 1981 when 64-17964 landed at Bodo, while on a combined mission/delivery to RAF Mildenhall from Beale AFB. The aircraft suffered an oil malfunction in one of the engines. Rather than risk flying the sick aircraft to Mildenhall, the crew elected to divert to Bodo. Clarence 'Skip' Hosler was an SR-71 Crew Chief and was in charge of the recovery team and appears to have been less than enthusiastic about his Norwegian experiences.

The unexpected diversion resulted in a KC-135Q being hastily dispatched from Beale AFB. The tanker full of Skip's technicians and spare parts arrived at Bodo, above the Arctic Circle, around 07:00. Rectification work commenced immediately and continued until late into the night. With no hangar available, '964 was left outside, which was a new experience for the California-based personnel. The technicians were back at work at dawn the following day, and eventually restarted one engine, although the other refused to fire. With little fuel remaining in the SR-71 tanks, the orbiting KC-135Q, which had launched from Mildenhall to assist with the final leg of the journey, elected to land at Bodo. The overweight tanker ran off the runway, sank into the asphalt and had to be pulled out. Eventually both engines on the Blackbird started, and preparations were made for departure, but not before the name 'Bodonian Express' and a small white crab were applied to the tail.

SR-71A 64-17960 performed in front of a vast, appreciative audience in May 1986 at the annual Mildenhall Air Fete. During its final pass, the aircraft suffered a momentary double flame out, resulting in unburnt fuel entering the rear of the engine, which then combusted when they were relit. The result was a huge fireball which held in the Suffolk sky for a few seconds.

Detachment 4 increased to two aircraft from 19 December 1982 when 64-17971 arrived to join 64-17972. With two aircraft stationed in England, the US Air Force began to undertake many more missions and expand its area of interest with more peripheral photography of Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. As the planners increased the number of sorties flown, there was a corresponding quantity of intelligence obtained. Understandably the aircraft could not fly supersonic overland, as the shock wave would have created catastrophic damage. However, missions over water could be accomplished at the design cruise normal speed of Mach 3+. Although none of us knew for sure at the time, the aviation enthusiast community were convinced that one area which was of primary interest was the militarised region of northwest Russia. The subsequent release of formerly classified information has confirmed that the SR-71 frequently flew to an area off the coast of Murmansk to obtain details of the submarine activity with the Soviet Northern Fleet.

On 9 July 1983, SR-71A 64-17962 settled onto the runway at Mildenhall after a lengthy ferry flight from Beale AFB. To the casual observer, this was just another SR-71, and unlikely to cause too much excitement amongst the local enthusiasts, as the same aircraft had been deployed here previously, having spent more than two weeks deployed at Mildenhall during September 1976. Except that this was a clever subterfuge, as it was not '962. The aircraft was in fact 64-17955, the Palmdale-based test aircraft, which was evaluating the new Loral Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System (ASARS-1). The decision to apply a different serial for the duration of the stay in England was taken to mask the true purpose of the test aircraft flying a rare operational mission overseas. The subterfuge worked, and the full details stayed buried for more than a decade! 17955 stayed long enough to complete the evaluation, before returning home, and reverting to its true identity. The operational evaluation performed as required, and the ASARS-1 was subsequently installed for specific missions.

Major Tom McCleary (pilot) and Lt Col Stan Gudmundson (RSO) pose outside the barns before taking 64-17964 back to Beale AFB at the completion of the Det's operations in Europe.

Operation El Dorado Canyon

The belligerent sabre-rattling by Colonel Mumar Ghadaffi of Libya increased as he ordered his military forces to become more aggressive to non-Muslin governments, and in particular, the United States. This was coupled with his financial support and backing for terrorist groups, resulting in his regime becoming a thorn in side of the United States. Confrontation seemed the only solution to silence the unpredictable figure-head. A build-up of tanker aircraft at RAF Fairford and Mildenhall heralded the likelihood of an air strike, and on the evening of 15 April 1986 the 20th and 48th Tactical Fighter Wings launched EF-111As and F-111Fs from RAF Upper Heyford and Lakenheath respectively. The latter were used to strike targets in Libya while the 'Spark-Varks' provided electronic jamming. Despite the loss of one F-111F and its crew, the bombing campaign, named 'Operation El Dorado Canyon', was fairly successful, although it had the much more tangible effect of silencing the vociferous Colonel. Post-strike photography was carried out by the two Mildenhall-based SR-71s, with both aircraft being airborne simultaneously. A dual mission was flown on 16 April and the two following days, as cloud cover hampered an effective take until the third occasion. Images captured on film were taken from the aircraft and processed before being loaded aboard C-135C 61-2669, which was the aircraft assigned to the USAF Chief of Staff. The imagery was deemed of such importance that the Chief of Staff himself, General Charles Gabriel, accompanied the film from Mildenhall back to Washington for analysis. This was the only occasion when Det 4 flew both its aircraft together operationally.

Not all sorties went smoothly. On 24 May 1987 the pilot of 64-17973 managed to overstress the aircraft while on a mission. The aircraft recovered safely to Mildenhall, but inspection by technicians subsequently determined that temporary repairs would need to be carried out to enable a flight back to Palmdale for further analysis. The aircraft returned to the USA on 22 July, although the likelihood of the programme being terminated may well have been the reason for expensive rectification work not proceeding. The aircraft remained stored with Lockheed at Palmdale subsequently, before being placed on display in the Blackbird Airpark.

One of the most famous SR-71s in Europe, 64-17964 displays 'The Bodonian Express' and a small white whale on the fin, after the type's first sojourn to Bodo Air Base, Norway. The aircraft was on delivery from Beale AFB to Mildenhall on 13 August 1981, when a malfunction caused the diversion. Three days later '964 landed at Mildenhall with the additional tail art.

SR-71 64-17964 appears to have liked Norway. Having been the first to divert there in August 1981, the aircraft had the honour of visiting the country twice more while on operations. On 6 March 1987 '964 suffered a technical problem, requiring the crew to divert, and three months later, on 29 June, the SR-71 crew landed in Norway for a second time. The March visit obviously caused the technicians some extensive problems, as the SR-71 was stranded in Norway for around fourteen days. The second diversion must have been considerably more straight forward to rectify, as 64-17964 flew back to Mildenhall three days later.

Detachment 4 was never short of missions. The Middle East was periodically the target area, following tension between certain nations. Missions to the region were launched from Kadena as well as from Detachment 4. The French government characteristically refused authority to overfly their territory, resulting in SR-71 missions from Mildenhall being routed around the Iberian Peninsula. One noteworthy sortie was performed during early March 1979 to monitor the situation between the Republic of Yemen and her Saudi Arabian neighbour. The Yemenis appeared to be on the brink of invading Saudi territory, with the US authorities anxious to gain intelligence on the intentions of the Yemeni government. Faithful SR-71A 64-17972 was dispatched to RAF Mildenhall to perform the lengthy sortie. After two cancelled missions, 17972 was airborne before dawn on day three, and completed the tanker rendezvous before streaking into the sun rise across the Mediterranean Sea. Two more mid-air refuellings were accomplished before '972 headed for the target area. A glitch in the automated navigation system resulted in the aircraft accidentally overflying the planned turn point, as the optical bar camera in the nose, and the various individual cameras in the chine bays captured their imagery. The delay in completing the turn produced unexpected results, yielding much valuable additional data. The crew returned the aircraft to Mildenhall after completing a mission lasting ten hours.

Sorties such as this were fairly uncommon, as most were conducted to gather intelligence from the old adversary, the Soviet Union, and her Warsaw Pact allies. Missions frequently involved the SR-71 departing Mildenhall and flying north around Norway before seeking activities in the area of Murmansk or Archangel. Others involved the SR-71 overflying the Baltic Sea to look deep into Poland, East Germany, and Russia. Sub-sonic missions along the border between the two Germanys were also carried out.

Classic image of a classic aircraft. 64-17967 rolls along the southern taxiway at the beginning of a sortie on 26 June 1989. The moveable vertical stabilisers are clearly visible.

It was clear that the SR-71 was an extremely flexible reconnaissance platform, even though it was hugely expensive to operate. Furthermore many senior Air Force planners in the Pentagon were from the 'fighter community' and were largely ignorant of the precise capabilities of the SR-71. Some wanted the SR-71 to be killed off to save money, which, they argued, could be better spent on more lucrative programmes. One officer stands out head and shoulders above all others in maintaining the SR-71 programme - General Jerry O'Malley, who had been a pilot with the 9th SRW earlier in his career, was one of the most staunch supporters of the SR-71 as he clearly knew the capabilities and value of the Blackbird. He became Commander of Tactical Air Command, and was widely tipped to become Air Force Chief of Staff. However, tragedy struck on 20 April 1985 when the North American T-39 Sabreliner carrying General O'Malley crashed at Wilkes-Barre airfield in Western Pennsylvania, killing all on board. Without guidance from the General, the Senior Crown programme began to see the end in sight. General Larry Welch, the CinC of SAC, eventually became the Chief of Staff, and set about eliminating the SR-71 from service. It was ironic that the single most vociferous opponent of Senior Crown had also been the head of SAC, its operating command, and therefore was more aware than most of its unique capabilities.


On 1 October 1989, the first day of fiscal year 1990, the Air Force issued an order suspending all SR-71 operations, except for proficiency flights. On 22 November 1989, all USAF SR-71 operations were terminated. Those at Detachment 4 had ceased flying two days earlier when 64-17967 had flown the last operational sortie. The aircraft was fitted with an optical bar camera, which was uncommon at Mildenhall. The crew must have been aware that this was likely to be their last sortie for a while, as they performed several overshoots before settling the giant aircraft onto the runway for the last time. The two jets remained securely tucked away in their barns for the next few weeks, while final plans were made for the Detachment to return the aircraft to the USA, and inactivate. On 16 January 1990 both aircraft flew a functional check flight to ensure all systems were working correctly.

A picture that took years to achieve, due to the sensitive nature of SR-71 operations. Photographers were taken to the side of the runway as 17964 blasted off as it returned to the USA on 18 January 1990. The two Det 4 aircraft returned home after the operation was prematurely terminated. 17964 subsequently joined the Strategic Air Command at Mahoney State Park, to the south of Omaha. The aircraft is the sole exhibit in the Atrium, mounted on a plinth at an angle to add a sense of dimension to the highly impressive museum.

Two days later the press were admitted to watch first hand as the Lockheed technicians prepared 64-17964 for the journey home. Access to the barns was available to all, with the two crew members, Major Tom McCleary (pilot) and Lt Col Stan Gudmundson (RSO) freely chatting to the media. Shortly before lunchtime the aircraft spooled into life, and with all systems functioning normally, taxied to the runway for the last time. With the characteristic roar, and the diamond shock waves dancing in the clear winter air, the SR-71 gracefully lifted from the runway and flew a three-sixty degree pattern to perform a fast, very low fly-by, before the pilot pointed the nose skyward and headed for Beale AFB. Next day 64-17967 departed, with much less fanfare. The departure was the end of an era. Similar activities were conducted by Detachment 1 at Kadena AB, Okinawa, with their two jets also flying back to the USA. On 26 January 1990 an SR-71 decommissioning ceremony was staged at Beale AFB, with General Welch, the main architect of the type's demise, being in attendance. Detachment 4 flew 894 operational missions, with a further 164 being functional, test, or delivery flights. SR-71A 64-17960 had the honour of performing the most combat missions, completing a total of 342. This aircraft spent fifteen months assigned to Detachment 4 from late 1985 until early in 1987. Throughout the period, sorties were flown to many locations to gather intelligence vital to the US government and NATO.

NASA had operated a small number of Lockheed YF-12s on high speed, high altitude research work for many years. These had been retired by 1979, as they had become too costly to maintain, although the requirement for a similar, high speed capability remained. The Air Force provided NASA with surplus SR-71s, as an effective method of retaining currency for Blackbird crews, in the event of the type returning to service. Despite the SR-71 programme being terminated, the type still had some friends within senior political and military circles, with much internal wrangling taking place in an attempt to reinstate the type to service. The Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB, California received 64-17980 on 15 February 1990, followed by 64-17971 soon afterwards (with NASA by October 1990). These became NASA 844 and 832 respectively. SR-71B 64-17956 also joined NASA as 831 on 25 July 1991. Although displaying their NASA serial and titles, the aircraft were only on loan from the Air Force, and 64-17971 was returned to the USAF inventory in 1995 when budgetary wrangles funded a reactivation of the programme.

The SR-71 had obtained significant intelligence data during its twenty-five years of operations, enabling key personnel to advise policy makers accordingly. Many senior politicians, with the appropriate security clearances, had privy to the detail of the material obtained, as all too often this guided their decision making for national and international policy. Despite calls for the SR-71s to be reactivated for Operation Desert Shield in 1990, the requests were denied. However, the continued instability in the Middle East, combined with ethnic violence in the Balkans, provided the nucleus for the pro-SR-71 lobby to become increasingly vociferous. During the spring of 1994, a deterioration of relations between the US and North Korea was, to many, the final straw. The SR-71 was needed to monitor the situation in these regions, with many Senators and Congressmen joining the call for the programme to be reinstated.

The crew of the tanker watch as technicians prepare 64-17980 for its mission on the piano-keys at Mildenhall on 7 March 1988. Lockheed technicians were contracted to perform all pre- and post-flight work at Mildenhall.

The continued SR-71 operation by NASA was well placed, as the US Congress appropriated $100 million in the fiscal year 1995 defence budget to reactivate both SR-71As and the sole SR-71B for service with the US Air Force. A programme office was established at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio to oversee the reactivation, with the aircraft being assigned to a Detachment of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing. Despite the headquarters being located at Beale AFB under Air Combat Command, the SR-71 operation was to remain at Edwards AFB, with Detachment 2 being formed. On 15 April 1996 John White, the Deputy Defense Secretary, directed the Air Force to ground the SR-71 due to conflicting language in Section 304 of the National Security Act of 1947. However, this was just one of many hurdles which the SR-71 cruised over on its rocky path back to operational status.

Lockheed Martin was contracted to prepare the two aircraft for operational duty. At the same time the two overseas operating locations at Kadena AB and RAF Mildenhall began to prepare for possible deployments by the SR-71 on an occasional basis. The situation in the Balkans, embroiled in civil war, was one of the most likely areas of interest, as were certain hostile Middle Eastern nations. Both of these 'hot spots' could be covered from RAF Mildenhall. On 1 January 1997 Detachment 2 at Edwards AFB was declared mission ready. The two aircraft, serial 64-17967 and 17971, had adopted the dark red tail band of the 9th RW containing the familiar four Maltese crosses, and the tail code 'BB'. Understandably, the possibility of SR-71 operations returning to Mildenhall caused great excitement within the aviation community in the locality. It seems logical to assume that the Air Force would not devote so much funding to the programme, just to have the aircraft flying training sorties over the high desert area around Edwards AFB. Therefore the return of SR-71 operations to Mildenhall seemed a distinct possibility.

What might have been! SR-71A 67-17967 in stored adjacent to NASA's Dryden complex at Edwards AFB, wearing 'BB' tail code, the 9th Reconnaissance Wing red stripe containing four iron crosses, and the Air Combat Command logo. Had funding for operations not been withdrawn, these would have flown from Mildenhall with these markings.

But the SR-71 retained only a few friends at senior level within the Air Force, and even the USAF Chief of Staff, General Ronald Fogleman, was against reactivation of the programme from the start. Therefore, despite backing by politicians, the negative stance by the primary operator of the system was always going to a massive hurdle. In fact, it was a hurdle which even the fastest operational aircraft in history could not overcome. Less than a year after being declared operational, the funding for operations in fiscal year 1998 was not made available. On 15 October 1997 President Clinton imposed a 'Line Item Veto' on SR-71 funding, which effectively killed off the programme. Fifteen days later Headquarters US Air Force directed the termination of all SR-71 operations, and ordered the swift disposal of the fleet. The Veto prevented any further opportunity by politicians to rekindle SR-71 operations at a future date. The revitalised SR-71 programme did not perform any overseas deployments, and the preparations at Mildenhall for a possible return, were quietly abandoned.

The SR-71B, which was shared with NASA, remained with the Dryden Center, as did their other SR-71A 64-17980. The two Air Force examples were taken over by NASA, and parked adjacent to their main facility at Edwards AFB. NASA continued to operate the SR-71 until 1999, when the research being conducted was completed. The aircraft were still there at the end of 2000 - at that time Edwards AFB held the largest concentration of SR-71s, with the four aircraft looked after by NASA, which could be seen dotted around the sprawling complex. In addition, the Air Force Flight Test Center museum had 64-17955 waiting display.

Duxford's Blackbird

The latest move by an SR-71 was not by air, exceeding Mach 3 and shooting the characteristic diamond shockwaves into the sky. This journey was completed at a far more sedate pace, with 64-17962 being dismantled and taken by road from Palmdale to board a ship bound for England. The final part of the journey was again by road, to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford to become one of the star exhibits at the new American Air Museum section. The SR-71 arrived on 11 April 2001 and following reassembly was formerly handed over by General Joseph Ralston, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe at a ceremony held on 14 June. The SR-71 may no longer grace the skies of eastern England, but one is available for generations to enjoy. Somehow, the static exhibit lacks the life and intensity associated with daily operations. The stillness shields the dangers that the aircraft and its crews faced every time they flew operationally close to the borders of hostile nations. SR-71 missions were hazardous, as more than a 1,000 surface to air missiles were launched, mostly by North Vietnamese air defence sites. No doubt, some were fired at '962. None reached their targets - a testimony to an unsurpassed aircraft.

Parked in a remote area of Mildenhall prior to performing some engine runs, 64-17974 clearly shows off the blended wing to good effect. Forward visibility for the pilot was limited, and completely non-existent for the RSO in the rear seat.

For those in the fortunate position, like the author, to have witnessed at first hand the operation of this fascinating aircraft, the memory will remain forever of a small piece of aviation history that was both outstanding and captivating. Very few other aircraft could capture the public's imagination to the same degree, although other black types, such as the F-117 and the B-2, have ventured to come close.

The Senior Crown programme performed no overseas operational sorties since being withdrawn late in 1989, and seventeen years later, military and political figures still talk of the contribution the aircraft could have made whenever the US is embroiled in combat. During the Kosovo campaign and the second Gulf War, there were calls for the reinstatement of SR-71 operations, due to lack of timely reconnaissance. However, the final death knell for the SR-71 was the advent of the small, highly capable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which were cheap to operate, and could loiter for longer periods to obtain data. While not providing exactly the same quantity of intelligence, they were equally as flexible, and were considered 'disposable' due to the lack of an onboard crew. No SR-71 advocate could argue against such features.

SR-71 Visits to the UK

A - In chronological order

64-17972 9 September 1974 - 13 September 1974
64-17972 20 April 1976 - 30 April 1976
64-17962 6 September 1976 - 18 September 1976
64-17958 7 January 1977 - 17 January 1977
64-17958 16 May 1977 - 31 May 1977
64-17976 24 October 1977 - 16 November 1977
64-17964 24 April 1978 - 12 May 1978
64-17964 16 October 1978 - 2 November 1978
64-17972 12 March 1979 - 28 March 1979
64-17979 17 April 1979 - 2 May 1979
64-17976 18 October 1979 - 13 November 1979
64-17976 9 April 1980 - 9 May 1980
64-17972 13 September 1980 - 2 November 1980
64-17964 12 December 1980 - 7 March 1981
64-17972 6 March 1981 - 5 May 1981
64-17964 16 August 1981 - 6 November 1981 (arr from Bodo - diverted on flight from Beale on 13 Aug)
64-17958 16 December 1981 - 21 December 1981
64-17980 5 January 1982 - 27 April 1982
64-17974 30 April 1982 - 13 December 1982 (at Bodo 7/5 - 9/5)
64-17972 18 December 1982 - 6 July 1983
64-17971 23 December 1982 - 2 February 1983
64-17980 7 March 1983 - 6 September 1983
64-17962 9 July 1983 - 30 July 1983 (in reality 64-17955)
64-17974 2 August 1983 - ? July 1984
64-17958 9 September 1983 - 12 June 1984
64-17979 14 June 1984 - mid July 1985
64-17975 Mid July 1984 - 16 October 1984
64-17962 19 October 1984 - mid October 1985
64-17980 19 July 1985 - 29 October 1986
64-17960 29 October 1985 - 29 January 1987
64-17973 1 November 1986 - 22 July 1987 (for repairs)
64-17964 5 February 1987 - mid March 1988
64-17980 27 July 1987 - 3 October 1988 (from RAF Lakenheath)
64-17971 13 March 1988 - 28 February 1989
64-17964 5 October 1988 (to RAF Lakenheath) - 18 January 1990
64-17967 2 March 1989 - 19 January 1990

Not all operational aircraft were assigned to Detachment 4. Throughout the eleven years the unit was in residence, and the three years previous when SR-71s visited Mildenhall on an ad-hoc basis, thirteen different aircraft were deployed. A further four, which were assigned to the 9th SRW, did not contribute to the European operation, these being 64-17959, 17961, 17963, and 17968.

B - By serial

64-17958 7 January 1977 - 17 January 1977; 16 May 1977 - 31 May 1977; 16 December 1981 - 21 December 1981; 9 September 1983 - 12 June 1984
64-17960 29 October 1985 - 29 January 1987
64-17962 6 September 1976 - ? September 1976 (here until at least 23 Sept); 9 July 1983 - 30 July 1983; 19 October 1984 - mid October 1985
64-17964 12 December 1980 - 7 March 1981; 16 August 1981 - 6 November 1981 (arr from Bodo - diverted on flight from Beale on 13 Aug); 5 February 1987 - mid March 1988; 5 October 1988 (to RAF Lakenheath) - 18 January 1990
64-17967 2 March 1989 - 19 January 1990
64-17971 23 December 1982 - 2 February 1983; 13 March 1988 - 28 February 1989
64-17972 9 September 1974 - 13 September 1974; 20 April 1976 - 30 April 1976; 13 September 1980 - 2 November 1980; 6 March 1981 - 5 May 1981; 18 December 1982 - 6 July 1983
64-17973 1 November 1986 - 22 July 1987 (for repairs)
64-17974 30 April 1982 - 13 December 1982; 2 August 1983 - ? July 1984
64-17975 ? July 1984 - 16 October 1984
64-17976 24 October 1977 - 16 November 1977; 18 October 1979 - 13 November 1979; 9 April 1980 - 9 May 1980
64-17979 17 April 1979 - 2 May 1979; 14 June 1984 - mid July 1985
64-17980 5 January 1982 - 27 April 1982; 7 March 1983 - 6 September 1983; 19 July 1985 - 29 October 1986; 27 July 1987 - 3 October 1988 (from RAF Lakenheath)

The author would like to acknowledge the help of Dave Wilton in the preparation of this article.

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