Story

Flying the SR-71

Posted on Fri, July 29, 2016
favorite

The Museum is fortunate that among our corps of docents, or guides, are people with direct experience flying or flying in a number of our aircraft. Among those docents are Buz Carpenter and Phil Soucy who know what its like to sit inside one of the world's fastest aircrafts, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. Here, they share their experience, and, if you're lucky, you can catch one of their tours at the Museum. 

Buz Carpenter stands in front of the SR-71.

Buz Carpenter

What was your role in the SR-71 program? I was an aircraft commander (pilot) flying reconnaissance missions. We operated out of Beale Air Force Base in California, Kadena Air Base in Japan, and Mildenhall Air Base in the United Kingdom (UK). Later, I served as an instructor pilot.

What was it like to fly the SR-71? The aircraft had a heavy control stick (it was hard to move) and powerful acceleration pushed you against the seat during takeoff. Yet, it was a delicate aircraft in that you had to carefully handle the controls at such high speeds. The faster you flew the more sensitive the aircraft became and required more concentration and care. I felt privileged to be among the few to fly this aircraft and when each mission was completed I had an incredible sense of accomplishment that I had done something important for our country.

What is your most memorable moment in the SR-71 program? In 1979, I was deployed by President Carter on an important mission, because of the conflict in the Middle East. We flew from California to the UK in the first SR-71 mission that the UK Government had ever approved into the Middle East. The mission was almost 10 hours long because the French Government wouldn't let us fly over France. We had to go around Spain and Portugal before entering the Mediterranean Sea through the Straits of Gibraltar.

Phil Soucy stands in front of the SR-71.

Phil Soucy

What was your role in the SR-71 program? I was a Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO). An RSO flies in the backseat of the SR-71 and is in charge of navigation and imaging systems.

What made you want to join the SR-71 program? As an F-4 Weapon Systems Officer (WSO), I had always hoped to transition to the SR-71. A WSO is responsible for the navigation and weapons deployment in the F-4 Phantom. The SR-71 flight test crew positions required an experienced WSO with an engineering degree who was also a graduate of the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base. An opening for this position occurred, I was quick to apply and fortunately selected.

What is your most memorable moment in the SR-71 program? An SR-71 test-pilot and I had the opportunity to fly a damaged aircraft back from Mildenhall Air Force Base in England to California. The SR-71 had been damaged by exposure to too many G forces while performing at an airshow and needed repairs. It was necessary to fly it to California. The potential existed that complications from the damage would result in the aircraft breaking in half just as the nose rotated for takeoff. The mission all went fine and no such failure occurred, but I can tell you that we were both very “attentive” during takeoff.

Episode: Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

STEM in 30

Built of titanium, the SR-71 Blackbird is the world's fastest jet-propelled aircraft. In this episode of STEM in 30 we feature the SR-71 Blackbird and explore why it was so important for reconnaissance.

See the Show