It’s a bird? It’s a plane? It’s both!

Flying the SR-71 Blackbird

By Mark Luedtke
Photo: The fabled SR-71 Blackbird will be the subject of discussion at the Engineers Club on Friday, Feb. 22

The SR-71 Blackbird is one of the most captivating aircraft in history. Designed by the Skunk Works division of Lockheed, the aircraft first took flight in 1964 and was finally retired in 1998. Yet, it still holds the official speed record for air-breathing aircraft. Designed for long-range, high-altitude reconnaissance, the SR-71 routinely cruised at Mach 3.2 and at over 80,000 feet. Its maximum speed and altitude are still classified.

Former SR-71 pilot Jack Mecham offers his take on why the SR-71 still captivates so many people, “Most people are really enthralled with the SR-71 because it was a different type of aircraft. The world’s fastest. It did things that no other air-breathing aircraft could do.” Former United States Air Force Aerospace Physiologist Susan Richardson adds, “And, it looks really cool!!” Mecham and Richardson will deliver a presentation at the Engineers Club on the history of the SR-71 Blackbird and share their personal experiences piloting and training pilots to fly the fastest plane known.

Richardson, who served 26 years as a USAF Aerospace Physiologist assigned to the 9th Physiological Support Squadron, Beale Air Force Base, Calif., will open the program with a presentation of the life support equipment and training requirements for SR-71 crews. Flying at Mach 3+ at 80,000 feet presents different life support problems for its pilot, as opposed to the pilots of conventional aircraft. Standard masks don’t work at that altitude, and crew members need suits more like space suits than conventional flight suits. In addition, because of the great speed of the SR-71, friction produced tremendous heat that had to be compensated for. Richardson provided a laundry list of the special challenges, “Hypoxia (oxygen deficiency), Decompression Sickness (nitrogen evolving from body tissues and forming life threatening bubbles), extreme heat if the environmental control system was lost and ebullism (boiling of the blood at body temperatures above 63,000 ft).” The David Clark Company provided the pressure suits to protect the crew.

Richardson describes the dedication of the technicians of the 9th Physiological Support Squadron, “Their motto is we stand ‘Between life and death,’ and that is absolutely right. That protective full pressure suit must work the first time and every time because the pilot and Reconnaissance Systems Officer’s lives depended on it.”

Mecham will follow Richardson with his presentation on the SR-71 family of aircraft. The SR-71 was a derivative of the A-12, a Mach 3+ aircraft built for the CIA. The A-12 was slightly lighter, smaller and faster than the SR-71, but first flown in 1962. It was retired in 1968 in favor of the SR-71, largely because of the SR-71’s side-viewing radar and cameras which allowed it to avoid direct overflight of its target. A variant of the A-12, an interceptor for supersonic bombers called the YF-12, is on display in the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. The SR-71 family also includes the M-21 – a mothership for a supersonic drone – and the D-21, the drone.

Mecham is well qualified to discuss these spy planes. Besides spending a couple hundred hours flying them, mostly out of the Lockheed plant at Palmdale, Calif., Mecham has a history of flying covert missions in support of the Central Intelligence Agency. He recounts, “In Vietnam, I flew H-3 helicopters in support of the CIA. We weren’t CIA. We were Air Force. The CIA was a customer, but the Air Force had no control over us. My point of contact was the State Department. We didn’t fly any missions in South Vietnam. It was mostly in Laos. I was the first to go north of Hanoi in February of [19]67. That same month, I was the first one to go into Cambodia, which we disavowed for many years.” Mecham flew over 100 combat missions in Vietnam and will share the exploits of his “Black Mariah” helicopter, the helicopter with a bounty on it, at the presentation.

But the star of the program is the SR-71. Mecham said the official speed record is nothing. The SR-71 routinely cruised faster than that, “We would cross the United States in about 50 minutes, coast to coast. We could cruise at about Mach 3.2 or a little better, and that is faster than the muzzle velocity of a .30-06 rifle bullet, so you’re truly flying faster than a bullet.”

In addition, the plane could fly twice the distance of the U.S. coast to coast without refueling. Because of the unique design of its engines, the SR-71 burned significantly less fuel flying at cruise than subsonic. Another interesting fact is that the SR-71 took off with its fuel tanks only half full. It had to be refueled after take-off before every mission.

One spectacular claim to fame for the SR-71 is that over 4,000 missiles were fired at it, but none hit. While most of Mecham’s flying was experimental and over the U.S., he did have a missile fired at him once, but he can’t say the location.

The Engineers Club of Dayton’s Distinguished Speaker program presents “Flying the SR-71 Blackbird” on Friday, Feb. 22 at the Engineers Club, 110 E. Monument Ave. The presentation begins at 7:30 p.m. and is free to the public. Reservations are not required but are requested. For more information, call 937.228.2148 x. 111. 

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Reach DCP freelance writer Mark Luedtke at

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