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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 undergraduate studies?

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.

SR 71

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 MID-SO aircraft.

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.

SR 71

CSim: What "extra" qualifications did you have to have to even be eligible to fly the SR-71?

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 thrill?

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 engage you?

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.

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