I’ve listened to their numerous stories telling me about what it was like working on America’s top secret projects like the U-2, SR-71, and the F-117. I have always had a fondness for military history, especially aviation history, so I was delighted when I discovered this fascinating background with a lot of the folks I work with on a weekly basis.
Additionally, Skunk Works once had a top secret testing site in my neighborhood here in Santa Clarita just a few miles from Grace to You. The area where the site was once located is now an industrial center with the primary showpiece being a Wal-Mart supercenter, with a Wendy’s and Chipolte across the street on one corner, and a Home Depot on the other.
A good many of my volunteers were at Skunk Works during the development of the SR-71 Blackbird. As a kid, I always thought that was the “awesomest” of all jet planes. I was such a geek about it, that growing up, I had posters of the SR-71 on my wall rather than scantly clad women.
A favorite book of mine I always love to recommend is “Skunk Works” written by Ben Rich, one of the major directors of the facility during the era when all these planes were being developed and flown. He started under the original director, Kelly Johnson, and eventually took over once he retired. The book is a basic history of the facility and the historic planes they built and how they were used during the Cold War.
The entire book is fascinating to read, and knowing and talking with many of the folks who actually lived around the history that is recounted, it makes the book come to life even more.
In the chapters of Rich’s history retelling the development of the SR-71, he has various pilots who flew the Blackbird during its service share their remembrances flying the iconic jet – and there are plenty of good ones. One pilot tells of how he would wake up in the morning at home in New Mexico, have breakfast with the wife and kids, get to work at the Air Force base by 9ish AM, have a briefing on the mission he was to fly, be in his Blackbird taking off by 10ish AM, flying over China around noonish, then back home in New Mexico by 3ish in the afternoon, followed by a debrief and story swapping with the other guys, and then home by 5ish or so.
One of the more entertaining testimonies comes from Lt. Colonel William Burk Jr., who shares about a particular mission he flew over Lebanon back in 82.
In the fall of ’82, I flew from Mildenhall on a mission over Lebanon in response to the Marine barracks bombing. President Reagan ordered photo coverage of all the terrorist basis in the region. The French refused to allow us overfly, so our mission profile was to refuel off the south coast of England, a Mach 3 cruise leg down the coast of Portugal and Spain, left turn through the Straits of Gibraltar, refuel in the Western Mediterranean, right turn into Lebanon and fly right down main street Beirut, exit along the southern Mediterranean with another refueling over Malta, supersonic back out the straits, and return to England.
Because Syria had a Soviet SA-5 missile system just west of Damascus that we would be penetrating (we were unsure of Syria’s intentions in this conflict), we programmed to fly above 80,000 feet and at Mach 3 plus to be on the safe side, knowing that this advanced missile had the range and speed to nail us.
As we entered Lebanon’s airspace my Recon Systems Officer in the rear cockpit informed me that our defensive systems display showed we were being tracked by that SA-5. About 15 seconds later we got a warning of active guidance signals from the SA-5 site. We couldn’t tell whether there was an actual launch or the missile was still on the rails, but they were actively tracking us. We didn’t waste any time wondering, but climbed and pushed that throttle, and said a couple of “Hail Kellys.”
We completed our pass over Beirut and turned toward Malta, when I got a warning low-oil-pressure light on my right engine. Even though the engine was running fine I slowed down and lowered our altitude and made a direct line for England. We decided to cross France without clearance instead of going the roundabout way.
We made it almost across, when I looked out the left window and saw a French Mirage III sitting ten feet off my left wing. He came up on our frequency and asked us for our Diplomatic Clearance Number. I had no idea what he was talking about, so I told him to stand by. I ask my backseater, who said, “Don’t worry about it. I just gave it to him.” What he had given him was “the bird” with his middle finger: I lit the afterburners and left that Mirage standing still. Two minutes later, we were crossing the Channel.