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What were once secrets are now stories of achievement, heroism

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Lt. General William Campbell, a former pilot of the once top-secret SR-71 Blackbird, spoke in SCC last week.


The sky was black above Major Bill Campbell. At 80,000 feet above the earth, he entered the stratosphere at Mach 3.2, leaving sound far behind him. Campbell was on a mission, he knew the enemy was coming with the aim to shoot him down. As the pilot of a SR-71 Blackbird jet, Campbell had a variety of defensive strategies — the first of which was simply to outrun anything that was fired at him. In the history of the aircraft, no Blackbird was ever lost to enemy fire. It was, and still is, the world’s fastest jet. No one could hit it, and the pilots, the best of the best, were too skilled to allow for even a lucky shot.

The Blackbird was developed in secret beginning in the late 1950s. It was the first aircraft in the world to use stealth technology and from the pilot’s perspective it was a spaceship as much as it was a jet plane. It was not only the world’s fastest jet, but also the highest-flying conventional aircraft. The pilots were required to wear protective pressure suits, the design for which was later used by astronauts on the space shuttle. While armed with missiles (that could barely fly faster than the Blackbird itself), its primary armament was high-resolution cameras. The Blackbird was America’s eyes in the sky.

Although the world has known about the Blackbird for decades, it has only been recently that the men who flew the ships have been allowed to talk about them. On November 4, at the invitation of the Silver Osprey Squadron of the Association of Naval Aviation in Sun City Center, Campbell told his story.

Campbell was a U.S. Air Force officer who later retired as a Lt. General. In 1963, he graduated from the USAF Experimental Test Pilot School. A year later, he was chosen by the CIA to pilot a secret new aircraft. In 1966, he finally flew a version of that aircraft for the first time, racking up 768 hours of flying before his last flight in 1971.

The aircraft was so secret that in order to transport it from the manufacturing plant in southern California to the Area 51 test site in Nevada, it was boxed up in large pieces and moved on multiple semi trucks. Only two years passed from the time the Air Force awarded the contract to Lockheed to the first test flight. Just over three years later in 1965, after hitting a speed of Mach 3.29 and an altitude of 90,000 feet in testing, it was declared combat ready.

Such numbers are easy enough to throw around in today’s era of computer-simulated reality, but there was nothing simple about creating a machine that could fly so fast, and so high, and then bring the pilot safely home. The resistance cause by such a high speed created unimaginable temperatures, with the surface of the aircraft potentially ranging from 400 to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. The pilot’s windows could reach 650 degrees in temperature.

With the heat, the entire aircraft would change, literally growing three to four inches in length and one to two inches in width. All of that meant a great deal to the pilots as the same forces would apply to them, should ejecting be necessary at that altitude. At those temperatures without a protective suit, their blood would boil.

At Freedom Plaza in Sun City Center, it was a full house for the monthly Silver Osprey Squadron meeting. While it is typically the place for naval aviators, Lt. General Campbell bridged the divide with the Air Force. Members of both branches of the service attended, along with many others interested in the rare opportunity to hear from a man who has flown higher and faster than almost anyone, in an aircraft that was once a top secret.

The Blackbird was unique in that it actually became more fuel-efficient as its speed increased.

“Unlike anything else I’ve ever flown, the maximum fuel efficiency was at maximum speed,” Campbell said. “Think about that, think about taking a boat out wide open. But this aircraft flew best at Mach 3.2.”

But fuel was always a concern. The 60,000-pound aircraft carried 80,000 pounds of fuel — and a considerable quantity of that was consumed just reaching the normal altitude. At Mach 3.2, the heat was so intense that little additional fuel could be added without the risk of melting components in the engine. The fuel used was unique to the Blackbird — no other aircraft use it.

With only space above him and sound behind him, Campbell spoke of what it was like in the cockpit.

“I thought the airplane was very easy to fly,” he said. “It was very stable — even at 90,000 feet. It is very quiet up there, it could be hard to stay awake,” he said to laughter. “The only other things up there were other Blackbirds. The sky was black and I could see stars above me.”

Of the 32 Blackbirds built, 12 of them were lost in accidents, one of which resulted in the loss of a test pilot’s life. In the other accidents, the pilots safely ejected. Through the course of the program, the aircraft flew more than 17,000 sorties, amassing 11,675 hours at Mach 3 or above.

In 1968, primarily due to contractual obligations, then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered the highly specialized tools used to build the aircraft destroyed, thus eliminating not only any possibility of a successor, but also limiting the availability of parts for the still-flying aircraft. Because the aircraft was developed in secret, there was little understanding by those in Congress who controlled the purse strings and it was thought that surveillance satellites could do the Blackbird’s job better and in a more cost-effective manner. Satellites, however, could not be positioned to look at a specific place and in a specific time. Shortly after it was first retired in the early 1970s, the aircraft was reinstated, still limited to the 32 craft that were originally built.

The aircraft technically remained on active duty until 1998 when it was permanently retired. The two remaining airworthy Blackbirds were given to NASA, the rest were donated to museums. Publicly, at least, no aircraft exists today that can match its speed and altitude. On a single day in 1976, on one aircraft’s final flight, several speed records were set that remain in place today.

“You could see things like the Mississippi River and the Rockies, you could sense a little bit of movement, but there wasn’t the sense of speed, of moving at Mach 3.2,” Campbell said of flying the Blackbird so high and so fast.

Campbell is in an extremely exclusive club of people who have flown so high and so fast. No pilots today are able to match what he achieved 40 years ago at the controls of an SR-71 Blackbird. He said it was a wonderful program to be associated with, now one for the history books. Perhaps most ironically all of it was achieved decades ago, before the emergence of our high technology society. As Lt. General Campbell pointed out, the Blackbird was the last Air Force aircraft designed using a slide rule.

For information about the Sun City Center’s Silver Osprey Squadron, contact information for Commander Bo Heininger (USN-Ret) is available from the Association of Naval Aviation at www.anahq.org or from squadron public information officer Lt. Barry Dwyer (USN-Ret) at barry.dyer13@gmail.com or by calling 813-508-5671.

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