Program note: CNN’s “Declassified” reveals the story of Russia’s secret network of deep-cover spies living in the United States on Saturday July 22, at 9 p.m. ET/PT. This story was first published in July 2016.
14 ex-crew members of legendary SR-71 Blackbird spy plane reunite at Georgia aviation museum
While celebrating world speed record, they're spurring interest in science and technology among kids
Once upon a time there was a “magic airplane” that protected the world from harm by flying faster than a speeding bullet and soaring higher than the highest mountain.
But this is no fairy tale.
“Once upon a time,” was really from 1964 to 1999.
And the aircraft was a U.S. Air Force spy plane called the SR-71.
Forty years ago, in 1976, the Lockheed jet nicknamed the Blackbird broke the world absolute speed record – flying 2,193 mph – literally faster than a bullet. That’s three times the speed of sound.
“This is a magic airplane,” said the pilot who broke the record, retired Maj. Gen. Eldon “Al” Joersz. “You have this very powerful, exotic machine at your control that you’re trying to dance with – to make music with. Because that’s what she wants from you. She wants to fly smooth and nice.”
Incredibly, the record still stands. No manned airplane with an air-breathing engine has ever flown faster.
As many Blackbird aficionados know, the SR-71 was the first stealth aircraft, with a special shape and exterior coating designed to evade radar detection.
It was unmatched in its ability to use speed and extreme altitude – 16 miles high – to capture photographs and other kinds of intelligence that helped keep the Cold War from heating up.
‘Keeping history alive’
On Saturday, the Blackbird family, as you might call them, held a kind of reunion at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, Georgia, about 20 miles south of Macon.
Fourteen former crew members, including pilots, reconnaissance systems officers, technicians and others traveled from across the nation to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the record breaking flight.
But they also came to send a message about the future.
“It’s about keeping history alive,” said Cheryl Burns, spouse of former Blackbird crew chief Dave Burns. The idea is to use the Blackbird “to try and promote future generations, to spark their interest so they can continue and reach higher.”
The museum invited families and especially kids to come meet the former Blackbird crew members and maybe get interested in the technology by building models of the planes they can take home.
“We’re targeting fourth through eighth grade – we think that’s the sweet spot,” said former Blackbird pilot Buz Carpenter, who flew from 1975 to 1981. “If you can get kids at that age excited about doing something in aviation or space or teaching or technology … once they get beyond that age it’s really difficult.”
Carpenter and the other members of the Blackbird family hope activities like this will plant the seed that will result in the incredible technology of the next generation, whatever that may be.
The fastest jet crew in the world
The plane that set the record lives at this museum, next door to Robins Air Force Base.
On the anniversary Thursday, Joersz and former reconnaissance systems officer, retired Lt. Col. George “GT” Morgan, sat in the cockpit again for the first time in four decades.
“It was enjoyable to get back in the airplane and refresh your memory where some of the stuff was,” said Joersz. But he noticed that everything wasn’t exactly the same.
Forty years ago “the airplanes were so nice [with] leather seats and you’re in a pressure suit … and everything was so well put together… but here… it’s a beautiful old airplane but it’s got some gauges missing and there’s no soft, cushiony seat, so you kind of say ‘It’s too bad that we’re not keeping this just the way it was back then,’” Joersz said.
“We were not the only ones who could fly this fast or who could go this high,” Morgan said. “We happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
The Blackbird family
“It’s beautiful. It’s mysterious. It’s awesome. It’s powerful. It’s timeless,” said former Air Force Lt. Carolyn Rosenberg, describing the Blackbird.
That’s high praise for a jet designed in the 1950s.
She used to watch them fly at March Air Force Base, before she met Maury Rosenberg, her future spouse. “The men that worked on the ground and who flew the plane were the cream of the crop,” she said.
Turns out Maury was one of those guys. He flew those beautiful, mysterious, awesome SR-71s.
After piloting Blackbirds from 1973-1978 and from 1981-1984, Maury decided to move to slower airplanes and fly for United Airlines. “This experience has left an imprint on our lives – all of us,” he said. “Every aspect of our lives – even whatever we went on to after the Air Force.”
Just about everyone said they came to rely on the other teams to do their jobs with precision and perfect timing.
For example, when each Blackbird would return from a surveillance flight, former electronic warfare systems technician Michael Hull remembers how ground crews sprung into action.
“As soon as they pulled in the hangar and shut off the engines, it was just like a beehive: Maintenance guys drop the doors down, pull the mission tapes out, dropping the cameras out, wheeling them right into shops, pull the film out … and the data would go right into the intel vans and be processed immediately. It was just an amazing operation.”
The secrecy of working in the Blackbird program required personal sacrifice, like long separations from family without being able to tell them where they were or what they were doing.
Dave Burns, the ex-crew chief, remembered when he was stationed at the SR-71 base in Japan and he broke the rules to use the jet’s high frequency radio to contact a ham operator in Nebraska. The ham operator kindly patched Burns into a land line so he could call his mom, just to tell her he loved her and he was OK.
Although it’s amazing the record has lasted this long, there’s no doubt “someone is going to go faster and take the record,” Joersz said. “In the meantime we’re happy to be the representatives that represent the speed that this airplane was able to achieve.”
“The technology is there to go faster,” he said. Lockheed Martin and other aerospace companies are developing a number of supersonic and hypersonic programs.
Could hypersonic engines be useful in powering a manned surveillance aircraft?
Maybe, said Carpenter.
Unlike satellites, an aircraft’s movements aren’t predictable, obviously. A hypersonic aircraft, meaning an object flying at least five times the speed of sound, flies across hostile airspace and gather intelligence so quickly and unpredictably that it would be out of range before adversaries on the ground could pose a threat.
“A hypersonic vehicle could be a deep penetrator and could provide that unknown time when it would penetrate,” Carpenter said.
And how cool would it be if some of the people who eventually develop that new technology were inspired to pursue engineering by an amazing 1960s-era jet called the Blackbird?