A former Blackbird pilot now volunteers at the National Air and Space Museum.
Before retiring from the U.S. Air Force as a colonel in 1995, Adelbert “Buz” Carpenter had a long career in reconnaissance, including flying RF-4Cs during the Vietnam War. On July 9, 1976, he made his first flight in the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, and then went on to fly more than 60 operational SR-71 missions. Assigned to the Pentagon in 1983–84, Carpenter was the Air Force’s “Black World” programmer, overseeing funding for the F-117, B-2, and F-22 programs. He now serves as a docent tour guide at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. He recently spoke with Air & Space Quarterly senior editor Diane Tedeschi.
What traits should a reconnaissance pilot have?
Well, reconnaissance pilots by their nature fly alone, while bomber and fighter pilots fly in formations. Obviously, recon pilots must have a great underpinning of the knowledge of the airplane and a knowledge of the mission that you’re out there for. And they must have adaptability. You come along and find that situations have changed—you’re the only one there. You’re the one that has to make the decision: Do I continue forward? Can I adjust to this? Or do I need to terminate the mission and return either to the home base or to the base that’s been selected for an unexpected event. So there’s a level of self-confidence and professionalism. Not that the other [military] pilots don’t have the professionalism, but they’re working more as a larger team. With reconnaissance, you’re the tip of the spear, collecting the information that will affect the decisions our leadership is making.
Is it true that SR-71 pilots had to be invited to apply to the program?
Some were invited—because somebody there had witnessed their skills. But then all of us went through a formal application process. A copy of your personnel records, your flight records, and your medical records were all shipped to the home base, Beale Air Force Base, north of Sacramento. And [your application] went through a rather intensive review because later on, when I became an SR-71 pilot at Beale, I was part of the review process for people we were looking to possibly bring in. Once we found a pilot and/or navigator that looked like they had the qualifications we wanted—in the pilot’s case 2,000 hours, physically fit, good flight record; navigators, 1,500 hours, the same level of physical fitness—we would bring them back for a five-day interview process. Your first two days were spent on a modified astronaut’s physical to see that you could operate effectively in a pressure suit.
Then you had a series of interviews with current pilots and staff, all the way up to the wing commander. Then we flew in the T-38 with a current SR pilot, and his job was to give an assessment of how well you fly. If you were a fighter-pilot type who likes to yank the airplanes around, they pretty quickly said: “Thank you very much for your interest, but this is not the program for you.”
Was flying well in the T-38 considered a good predictor of success in the SR-71?
Yes, but then they would put you in the SR-71 simulator. I was introduced to it in 1974, and it was the first computer simulator I’d ever seen. It flew exactly like the airplane. Matter of fact, when they had test missions, they would run the mission tape through the simulator to see if the simulator caught any glitches. Unlike today’s simulators, the SR-71 simulator had no visual display.
They would put you in the simulator for the morning to introduce you to the cockpit and teach you how to start the airplane, take off, and fly subsonically around the traffic pattern. Then you came back in and made an instrument landing. Then they would take you to lunch. And you would say to yourself, “That’s really nice.” No, it was part of the test. Because after lunch, they’d put the pilot back in the simulator and say, “What do you remember? Do you recall enough so that you can start this airplane up and take off?” Because the SR-71 instruction manuals stacked together were probably 12 inches high—and the emergency procedures you had to know absolutely cold.
All SR-71 pilots and navigators had to pass a demanding annual evaluation. You were in the simulator for four hours, and they threw every situation at you, and you had to know how to respond. Every year, we would have a pilot or navigator who wasn’t measuring up to the standards that were required for the missions we flew. But we didn’t put any black mark on their military record. We simply returned them to the unit they had come from. We said, “You’re a good aviator. But this is a different type of airplane, and you have not been able to adequately meet our standards.”
Before you became an SR-71 pilot, did you have some inkling of its existence?
When I was a cadet at the Air Force Academy [in Colorado], I did a summer internship at Edwards Air Force Base [in California]. This was in 1965, when so many airplanes were being developed, and the Blackbird we would periodically see there. So I was aware of the SR-71 and that its pilots wore spacesuits. When I graduated in 1967, an SR-71 did a flyby for our graduation ceremony.
Later on in my career, I worked for a then-colonel who had flown the first operational mission in the SR-71. And we got along famously—he liked the way I did things, and he taught me an awful lot. When we were both based in Thailand, he took me aside and said: “You’re the kind of guy I think we’re looking for, but you’re way too young. You have to go get a lot more flying experience, and if you’re still interested, I will not intervene to say, ‘This guy should be hired.’ I will only say, ‘If this guy puts his application in, would you please look at him?’ ”
What were your initial impressions when you first flew supersonic in the SR-71?
One, you got there pretty fast. It’s a very powerful airplane. Two: It’s actually very quiet. Because when you’re supersonic, the sound is behind you. It was just a sense of the speed at which you accelerated and climbed. You’re at 85,000 feet. You see the curvature of the Earth—the beautiful blue. Black sky above you. You can see up to 350 miles in any direction. It’s a magnificent sight. And at night—think of the pictures you’ve seen from NASA or the Hubble—90 percent of the stars we could see up there, we can’t see on Earth because the atmosphere is filtering them out.
Was the person in the back seat responsible for navigation?
The reconnaissance systems officer [RSO] was basically the navigator by training. And the SR-71 was the first aircraft that had an automated star-tracking system. So the technicians would come out two hours before we were there and upload all these mission tapes: exactly where we were going, the targets they had, the whole thing that they needed to tell the master computer on the airplane. This computer sits behind the navigator—we affectionately called it “R2-D2.”
On the back of the airplane, there was this glass eye. Once we started the engines and pulled out of the hangar and had a clear sky day or night, within two minutes, this sensor looked through the sky and locked on to stars. This allowed us to film a target at an accuracy range of 300 feet anywhere in the world traveling at 2,200 miles an hour.
What other duties did the navigator have?
The navigator also ran the cameras. Some of them were controlled by the computer. The side cameras knew what to look for and the lens would move—these cameras could look out 30 miles either side of the airplane. The big nose camera, which took a picture 72 miles wide, was turned on and off by the navigator when we flew over the target.
When we were flying stateside training missions, the navigator would be the one talking to the air traffic control centers. The pilot would do the talking up through takeoff and climbing out and then when we came back in to descend and land, the pilot took over the communications again. You and your RSO learned to work as a team.
When I was going through training, my wife used to say, “You might as well be married to John. You see more of him than you see of me.” The training was really intense, and hopefully you went through it with just one person. Occasionally, there would be someone who didn’t make it through the training, and then we had to do a re-pairing. But the ideal was you went completely through training and then probably spent the next three years the two of you crewed together. After we became experienced, I would sometimes fly a training mission with a young navigator before he was cleared to fly with his pilot. And John would fly with a young pilot—those were the only exceptions.
How many hours did you log in the Museum’s SR-71 (Air Force serial number 61-7972)?
972 was one of my favorite SRs—I flew 10 operational missions accruing over 67 hours in our aircraft. My most interesting and important mission was flown in 972 for President [Jimmy] Carter during a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Yemen in March 1979. I flew over the entire length of the Arabian Peninsula, then landed in England. The film from the cameras was put into a waiting airplane, flown across the Atlantic, and processed in Washington, D.C. The film from my nose camera, which had a 72-mile-wide view, took 12 hours to process. Because the film was two miles long. I don’t know if we shot all two miles of it, but we shot a goodly part of it.
President Carter monitored the entire nine-hour-and-45-minute flight from the White House as this was a historic mission: It was the first time the British government had approved launching [an SR-71 mission] from the United Kingdom, flying into the Middle East, and then recovering back in the UK. Previously, they had been concerned about a possible retaliatory oil embargo from the Middle Eastern countries. The mission briefing was attended by the leaders of MI5 and MI6, our deputy ambassador to the UK, the U.S. general in charge of worldwide operations, plus many senior USAF and Royal Air Force leaders. Their presence affirmed the political significance of this mission. 972 performed superbly, and we collected all the intelligence the decision-makers needed in a single mission.
Was there anything you didn’t like about flying the SR-71?
There was one thing, and it had to do with the security of the program. We could not share with our families or anybody else what we were doing. I had three daughters: They knew that their dad flew a Blackbird, but they didn’t know the details about the missions. My wife knew if I was in England or Japan. She didn’t know if I was in Diego Garcia. I spent 150 days a year overseas, and it put a strain on my family, but I had a wonderful wife who understood why things had to be that way. But we probably had about a 50-percent divorce rate [in the SR-71 program].
Did you ever fly in or out of the Area 51 test facility in Nevada?
When I was supporting Air Force test missions using the SR-71, I had a number of encounters with operations in Area 51. I had to be prebriefed and certified because I would be overflying the Area 51 complex. Later in my career, I would be responsible for the funding of the Area 51 facility. The first time I was there on the ground, I basically saw a base in the middle of the desert. Even the runway flowed into the dry lake. But the base at Area 51 looks like no other Air Force base you will ever see. It is a very compartmented base as the testing there is all classified at various levels. Many other military services and other government organizations do test work there. Most of the work is done inside closed areas so there is always an aura of mystery.
If I was taking you there, we would fly in on a special aircraft and your window seat would have the shade down as we fly in and land. We would be met at the airplane, and we would be driven to the location we have brought you there for—and nothing else. You would not spend the night, and we would fly you out once your work is done. If a project needs to be tested outside—especially if it has to be flown—many conditions need to be met. The work must be scheduled during a time when no satellites are flying overhead, for example. And any people outside during the test must have the proper security clearances.
Why did you decide to volunteer as a docent at the National Air and Space Museum?
I grew up in an aviation family. My dad was an aeronautical engineer who would later teach at the Brazilian Air Force Academy. My godfather was an aeronautical engineer. So I’ve always been interested in aeronautics and space and history. When I found out they were going to build the [Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center] that was going to have the SR-71, the space shuttle, a bunch of other stuff, I signed up for the first [docent] class.
What does being a docent entail?
I basically give tours to the general public and to VIPs. [Before the pandemic] I did them every other Saturday since 2003. At the five-year point, I had given the most VIP tours of any of the docents [at the Udvar-Hazy Center]. There’s still a mystique about the SR-71—people want to know everything about it.
What goes through your mind when you see the Museum’s SR-71?
When I come into the Udvar-Hazy Center and see this magnificent creation of [Lockheed aircraft designer] Kelly Johnson and his Skunk Works team, I pinch myself at times to realize I was allowed to fly this revolutionary aircraft.