The SR-71 Blackbird
The SR-71 spy plane, the most advanced member of the Blackbird family that included the A-12 and YF-12, was designed by a team of Lockheed personnel led by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, then vice president of Lockheed’s Advanced Development Company Projects, commonly known as the “Skunk Works” and now a part of Lockheed Martin. The Blackbird completed its first flight on Dec. 22, 1964.
The SR-71 was designed to cruise at “Mach 3+,” just over three times the speed of sound or more than 2,200 miles per hour and at altitudes up to 85,000 feet.
Soviet MiG-31 too close to for comfort
On Oct. 6, 1986, an SR-71 was just outside the territorial waters of Russia’s Murmansk area coastline. This was not the first time an SR-71 had flown along the coast of the Soviet Union and it wouldn’t be the last. It was the Blackbird’s job to take side looking pictures. The reason why the US were looking at the Soviet Union was they were looking for a nuclear submarine activity. However, this time a Soviet interceptor got a little too close for comfort. Ed Yeilding explained to Paul Crickmore, for his book Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions (Revised Edition);
‘Flying straight toward each other in our supersonic jets, I was reminded of two gallant medieval knights galloping full speed toward each other, only I did not have a weapon,’ Ed Yeilding, former SR-71 Blackbird pilot recalls.
‘In the distance far ahead, at perhaps 100 miles, I could see a long, bright white Russian contrail flying directly towards us, but at much lower altitude.
‘I raised my periscope and saw too that we were leaving a long contrail and I knew the fighter could see our contrail as easily as I could see his.
Orders to fir missiles at USAF SR-71 Blackbird
‘I also assumed he had orders to fire his missiles if I was late with my turn and slipped over Soviet territorial waters to within 12nm of Soviet land, and I assumed the pilot would like nothing better than an opportunity to fire his missiles at an SR-71 Blackbird.
‘I believed the Soviet fighter would not fire his missiles as long as we stayed on our usual track, but I also knew he or his ground controllers could mistake our position as being closer than we actually were.
‘We had no defences like flares against heat-seeking missiles, but again, we believed that missile “probability of kill” was very low due to our high speed and altitude.
‘I was determined to fly the track as planned and get the pictures.
‘For survival, Curt [RSO Lt Col Curt Osterheld] and I depended on accurate navigation to keep us just outside Soviet territorial waters to prevent a launch, and we depended on our superior speed and altitude in case missiles were launched.
‘From my F-4 experience with intercepts and visual acuity, my best guess is that eight miles was his closest approach.
‘He appeared to run out of airspeed at the top of his contrail, at maybe 65,000ft or 10,000ft below us.
‘I saw his nose below the horizon and fall away. Curt and I stayed on course and got the pictures.
The MiG-31, the premier Soviet supersonic interceptor
“During my three years of flying overseas reconnaissance missions, I frequently saw contrails far below of potentially hostile fighters, but that day, above the Arctic Circle over the Barents Sea, was the only time I saw a Soviet fighter get close enough that I could actually see metal, though barely larger than a dot and only because our routine track was predictable. Back at Mildenhall, during our debriefing, our intelligence officer told us, with near certainty, that the interceptor was a MiG-31, the premier Soviet supersonic interceptor at that time.”
Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Twitter X Page Habubrats SR-71 and Facebook Page Born into the Wilde Blue Yonder for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Dmitriy Pichugin via Wikimedia Commons