The Blackbird

An icon of the Cold War, the SR-71 Blackbird had been in frontline service for almost a decade by the time it started flying from RAF Mildenhall, Suffolk, UK, on a regular basis. The aircraft’s mission in-theater was simple — monitor Warsaw Pact troop movements along the Iron Curtain and photograph the various ports with access to the Baltic and Barents Seas that were home to the Soviet Union’s nuclear submarine fleet.

Advertise

During the course of these vital missions, the Soviets tried to intercept the SR-71 as it flew at Mach 3 just within international airspace. Despite employing the best frontline fighters and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) at their disposal, Soviet forces could not touch the Blackbird.

SR-71 within reach of Soviet fighters

As told by Paul F Crickmore in his book Lockheed SR-71 Operations in Europe and the Middle East was rare for SR-71 crews to spot their pursuers during Barents/Baltic Seas operations, for a fully functioning ‘Habu’ would remain out of reach of any NATO or Soviet interceptor. However, a jet with technical issues (or the onset of freak weather conditions) could bring the SR-71 back to within reach of chasing fighters. This happened to Majs ‘Stormy’ Boudreaux and RSO Ted Ross, who departed Mildenhall in 64-17980 at 1010 hrs on Jun. 3, 1986 on yet another Barents/Baltic Seas sortie.

Rare but true: that time an SR-71 Crew spotted six soviet fighters trying to intercept their Blackbird during a Barents/Baltic Seas sortie
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. SR-71A Blackbird 61-7972 “Skunkworks”

Heading out across the North Sea toward their first refuelling west of Norway, the crew discovered once they were in the tanker track at 26,000 ft that the sun was directly ahead of them. To make matters worse, they were flanked on either side by clouds. As they closed for contact with the KC-135s, the cloud both diffused and angled the sunlight, causing the latter to reflect brightly off the bottom of the tankers.

As soon as the boomer made contact, Boudreaux find himself flying formation in almost blinding conditions, with the SR-71’s cockpit instruments obscured in the dark shadow of the dashboard below the windscreen. He was forced to arrange his tiltable car-like sun-visor to shield against the high contrast conditions.

Surrounded by ‘sea, sky or whatever’

That effort proved of little value, for while in the contact position ‘on the boom’, the tanker’s reference points for formation flying were flashing in such extreme contrast that, according to Boudreaux, they appeared to be surrounded by ‘sea, sky or whatever’.

A strong sensation of vertigo overtook Boudreaux, leaving him with a false sense of diving and climbing (and with the even more powerful sensation of flying inverted while refuelling). An interphone call to his RSO, Maj Ross, assured Boudreaux that he was not upside-down. He was then able to continue filling 64-17980’s tanks while fighting his sense of flying ‘straight up or straight down’.

After clearing the tanker, and his senses, Boudreaux climbed through 60,000 ft, where he noted through his periscope that 64-17980 was still pulling contrails, which should have stopped above that altitude. Another check at 70,000 ft revealed that he was ‘still conning’, which he hoped would surely stop before they approached the target area. Upon entering the Barents Sea zone, the aircraft began a programmed left turn to the northeast and then reversed in a large sweeping right turn to roll out on a westerly heading, which would take the SR-71 on the ‘collection run’ and back across the entry point.

Rare but true: that time an SR-71 Crew spotted six soviet fighters trying to intercept their Blackbird during a Barents/Baltic Seas sortie
MiG-31 interceptors

When established on the westerly heading north of Archangel, the crew noted that they were still ‘conning’, which was most abnormal at high altitudes. To add to their dismay, Boudreaux spotted three other contrails ahead of them and off to the left, but turning to converge in what might be an intercept. Another southerly glance revealed more ‘cons’ closing from the left, but at a lower altitude.

Six Soviet fighters trying to intercept an SR-71

These six Soviet fighters, each separated by approximately 15 miles, were executing what appeared to be a well-rehearsed turning intercept manoeuvre to pop up somewhere in the vicinity of the fast-moving ‘Habu’ and potentially fire off sophisticated air-to-air missiles. The Soviet lighter pilots had executed an in-place turn, which would have positioned them perfectly for a head-on attack had 64-17980’s track penetrated Soviet airspace. As Ross monitored the fighters’ electronic activities, Boudreaux increased speed and altitude.

Suddenly, a contrail shot by just beneath the nose of the SR-71, leaving both crewmembers waiting for a missile or another aircraft to appear which might have ‘spoiled their whole day’. It was with great relief that Boudreaux realised that they were now paralleling their inbound contrail — they had laid it while turning northeast prior to heading west! For a few moments their hearts missed several beats as they contemplated the thought of having unwanted high-Mach company 15 miles above the cold Arctic seas.

Boudreaux eased off some power and settled the SR-71 back into a routine high-Mach cruise, the autopilot completing a long ‘lazy turn’ around the north shore of Norway before the pilot started his descent toward another refuelling. To complete the mission, the crew made an easy high altitude dash into the Baltic corridor and down through West Germany, before heading home to Mildenhall.

Lockheed SR-71 Operations in Europe and the Middle East is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Blackbird model
This model is available in multiple sizes from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and  Dmitriy Pichugin via Wikimedia Commons