Interview with a Blackbird - Wing Commander Richard Graham
by Albert "Bubba" Wolford
It was a cold February 3rd morning in 1964. There was a small contingent
of people gathered at a remote location in New Mexico. If one did not
know better, you would have thought they were staring at the sky
haplessly, as if looking for an angel in the middle of the day. Their
excitement was obvious and to any casual looker it would have seemed
almost weird. The place was Groom Lake and it was home to the aircraft
that no one knew existed. Since the first "black" airplane the XP-59A
Airacomet had made it's first flight in October of 1942, a host of new
"black" airplanes had come to exist in the United States.
Without warning there was a thundering BOOM overhead. The small crowd
quietly applauded the thundering sonic boom because they knew that with
that barrier surpassed, a new generation of "black" aircraft had been
born. Kelly Johnson was one of those present. He is virtually worshipped
in the aircraft community as a genius. He is also the man responsible
for taking the Blackbird under his wing and bringing it to reality. On 3
February 1964 a new TOP SECRET airplane referred to as the A-12 (the
name "A-1" was the first design name and since pilots referred to the
U-2 as "Angel" it only made sense to refer to the Blackbird which would
fly higher and MUCH faster as the "Archangel") reached a speed of Mach
3.3 and an altitude of 83,000 feet. It sustained this speed for over 10
minutes by a pilot named James D. Eastham.
This flight had set a new
world record but as far as the rest of the world knew, it had never
happened. Five grueling years had been spent making this flight possible
and for the next 25 years, the SR-71 would bring about a legacy that
even today is unsurpassed by any plane in history.20
During its illustrious career the SR-71 (it was actually named the
RS-71 or Reconnaissance Strike-71 but on July 24, 1964 then President
Johnson referred to it as the SR-71 by accident in a public statement
revealing the aircraft to the public for the first time, in an election
year. Thus over 25,000 documents had to be changed to correct the name
to SR-71) has proven such an impeccable asset that perhaps no one
country more than the Former Soviet Union knew how valuable an asset the
Blackbird would become to the United States.
Although many models were
proposed including fighter and bomber variants, it was only the
reconnaissance version that ever made it to production. The pilots
selected to fly the Blackbird were few and grew a special bond between
them. Lt. Col. Richard H. Graham was one of those special skillful
pilots. It was with great pleasure that I had an opportunity to ask him
to share some of those experiences with us in a special interview for
Combatsim. Thus without further ado... ENJOY!!
Csim: A lot of flight enthusiasts would love a chance to join the USAF, USN or
USMC solely based on the opportunity to fly combat aircraft. Please tell us when you first became interested in flying for the USAF and steps it took to make it through
Richard: My dad was a former Navy F-4U pilot and got me interested in flying at a
young age. He had his instructor ratings and taught both my brother and I how to fly. I
soloed me out in a Piper Colt in 1960 at the age of 18 at our local airport in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Even at the age of 18 I knew I wanted to fly in the Air Force, where the supersonic Century Series of fighter aircraft were just coming on line. I began Air Force pilot training in 1964 and found it very challenging. The academic rigors of pilot training were more difficult for me than the actual flying. I still remember soloing out in the T-37 and T-33, I felt like one hot pilot, especially having only flown the Colt four years earlier.
Csim: Upon finishing undergraduate training, what aircraft had you been
assigned to fly and was it a slot you wanted? If not, which aircraft was it that you wanted to fly?
Richard: In 1965 the air war in Vietnam hadnít picked up yet and fighter assignments
were few and far between. I listed all of the Century Series (F-100, F-101, etc.) aircraft as my choices, and ended up with my 6th choice, a T-37 Instructor Pilot slot at Craig AFB.
CSIm: Can you give us a quick recap on what you flew in the Air Force, for how
many years and how many hours you accumulated in each aircraft?
Richard: I flew the T-37 for five years and 2,000 hours, the F-4C/D for three years and
900 hours, the SR-71 for seven years and 765 hours, the U-2 for two years and 100 hours,
the T-38 for nine years and 1,000 hours, and the KC-135Q for two years and 250 hours. I
flew 145 combat missions in Vietnam in the F-4C/D in the 555 TFS ("Triple Nickel
Squadron") at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand and 60 combat missions in the F-4C Wild Weasel
at Korat RTAFB, participating in Linebacker II missions during the Christmas 1972
bombing of Hanoi. Flying with American Airlines I currently have 4,000 hours in the
CSim: When you were first offered the chance to fly the SR-71, how did that
opportunity present itself?
Richard: The SR-71 program was strictly a volunteer program. You had to submit a
volunteer package asking to be part of the SR-71 program. My opportunity had some
luck involved. I was on Okinawa at the time flying F-4 Wild Weasels. I went to lunch
with my boss one day, and on the way he had to stop in at Base Operations to say good
bye to a friend of his. It turned out his friends was the current SR-71 Squadron
Commander, Lt. Col. Jim Shelton. As they were chatting away, Lt. Col. Shelton asked me
if I had ever thought about applying for the SR-71 program. I told him flat out that I
thought my chances were so remote, I never gave it a thought. I had always admired the
Blackbird flying around the island and often wondered what it would be like to fly it.
After he told me the crews had the same flying background as I did, I began to get more
interested. I put my package together, sent it off to Beale, and was invited out for a week
of interviews, physicals and flying evaluation. The rest is history.
CSim: What "extra" qualifications did you have to have to even be eligible to fly
Richard: The minimum flying time was 2,000 hours in order to apply. A background in
a fighter type aircraft was a plus, but not mandatory. Air refueling experience was another
plus, since we didnít have extra flying time in the SR-71 to be teaching pilots how to
refuel. Probably one of the most subtle qualifications you had to have was the ability to
get along with the other SR-71 crew members. I told the story in my book about an
aspiring SR-7 1 pilot who was not chosen because he made comments at the Officers Club
bar one evening about how long the crews kept their hair and moustaches. During my
time, the squadron was a very small unit, consisting of only 9 operational crews (9 pilots
and 9 Reconnaissance System Operators)... getting along with each other was important!
CSim: What was your worst fear in flying the SR-71? What was your greatest
Richard: Unlike most airplanes, the SR-71 was always flown very close to the "edge of
the envelope." We flew it within very tight parameters and maximized its pefformance--
thats the way it ran best. You never really feared the SR-71 because it was very reliable, but you often thought about the worst possible emergency that could occur. For me that was a loss of the entire Stability Augmentation System (SAS) over a threat area. When we practiced that emergency in the simulator, without any prior warning, it usually
resulted in a total loss of control of the aircraft, requiring an ejection.
CSim: The former Soviet Union was the main country the SR-71 was designed
to fly over. Did you ever overfly the FSU and if so, did SAMS or MiG-25ís ever actively
Richard: Iíve never overflown the former Soviet Union. The majority of our
operational reconnaissance sorties were peripheral--flying close to the borders of foreign
countries without actually flying directly over them. Kelly Johnson was reported to have
stated that over 1,000 SAMs have been fired at Blackbirds. No SR-7 1 has ever been shot
down by SAMs or MIGs. In my book I discuss encounters with MIGs waiting in orbit,
trying to attempt an intercept with us. We flew the majority of our operational sorties out
of Okinawa, Japan and RAE Mildenhall, England. Beale AFB, California, was home for
the SR-7 Is, all of our training, and a few operational sorties.
CSim: How many SR-7lís were in active service over the years?
Richard: Itís best if I talk about what I refer to as the "Blackbird family" of aircraft
when I give you the numbers. Here is the total build of each variety, as well as the number lost.
15 A-12~ 6 lost *two A-12s were converted for the
3 YF-12 2 lost 12/D-21 drone project
295R-71A l lost
2 SR-71B 1 lost
1 SR-71C 0 lost
Total 50 20 lost
CSim: In 1981 you became the Squadron Commander of the 1st SRS. Could
you discuss how this came about and what some of your responsibilities were?
Richard: As with any squadron commander position, I was selected for many reasons.
In my case, timing had a lot to do with it. I was at the right place, at the right time. The primary job of the SR-7 1 squadron commander was to select the best possible crews,
training them to the highest standards and manage their worldwide deployments. A large
part of my time consisted of "putting out fires" that seemed to be endless. We were just
beginning our full-time presence at RAF Mildenhall which required my Operations Officer,
Don Emmons (also my RSO for seven years), or myself to be the acting detachment
commander. We replaced each other at Mildenhall with six weeks tours of duty for well
over a year.
CSim: Later in 1982 you were re-assigned to the Pentagon. Could you discuss
what duties you performed and what connection, if any, that assignment had in relation to the SR-71?
Richard: Between 1982 and 1984 I worked in an office (PRPFS) that managed
Strategic Air Commandís (SAC) fiscal budget. The SR-71 program was under SACís
command, and during those two years I saw the funding levels and general officer support
for the SR-71 1 begin to wane. From 1984 to 1986 I worked in the Assistant Secretary of
the Air Forceís office (SAF/MI). In my capacity there I attended many meetings where
Air Force budget matters were discussed at the highest levels. It was there I began to feel
an uncertain future for the SR-7 1 program. I sensed a definite lack of support from SAC
and other general officers in the Pentagon, as well as from a vocal group of civilians in the
Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), who supported satellites in lieu of the SR-71.
CSim: In 1986 you were again re-assigned back to Beale AFB. This time you
were the 9th Vice Wing Commander and one year later were selected to be the 9th SRW
Wing Commander. Were your responsibilities any different with these assignments and did
you hear rumors about the retirement of the SR-7 is?
Richard: As the Wing Commander at Beale AEB I was responsible for the entire base
and its 5,000 military personnel. At that time I had 35 KC-135Q tanker, 14 T-38s, and all of the U-2 and SR-71 aircraft under my command. The responsibilities were global as
well, and I thoroughly enjoyed the high activity level associated with our reconnaissance mission. We had U-2 detachments at Osan, Korea, Patrick MB, Florida, and RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, and the SR-71 detachments on Okinawa and RAE Mildenhall, England.
There were very few times I got a full nights sleep. If something noteworthy happened at
any one of the detachments, I wanted the commanders to call me directly, so I could be
prepared to "answer the mail" from SAC headquarters the next day. We knew the SR-7 1
program funding was in serious trouble around 1987. Its original retirement date was
supposed to be in 1989, but we held that off as long as possible, to 1990.
Go to Part II
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