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Interview with a Blackbird Pt.II
by Albert "Bubba" Wolford

Csim: It has long since been known that the Soviets hated and despised the SR-71. They furiously developed anti- SR-71 tactics continually in hopes of countering the Blackbird. It has been mentioned that on 3 June 1986 the Soviets demonstrated to a SR-71 crew that they had finally become "mortal" when six (6) MiG-31 Foxhounds made a coordinated mock intercept of an SR-71 that would have proven "inescapable" to the SR-71 and it's crew. Could you discuss this subject and pass on any information you have that might clear up this issue?

Richard: I can say 100 percent positively that it never happened. This is merely some of the mis-information and dis-information that goes around concerning the SR-71 program. Even if a MIG intercept was possible, it would be an even more demanding task to actually shoot down an SR-7 1.

Csim: It has been leaked that the SR-7lís top speed and maximum altitude when originally produced in 1963-1964 (A12) was around Mach 3.3 (3.29) and could approach 90,000 feet. Undoubtedly, the plane has undergone some major changes to itís engines, avionics, and sensors.

Richard: The top speed of the SR-71 is 3.5 Mach. Thatís not an absolute number because the speed limitation was actually a Compressor Inlet Temperature (CIT) restriction. Whenever the CIT reached 427 degrees C., thatís as fast as you could go. If anyone went faster than Mach 3.5, they were most likely in trouble. Our performance charts show 90,000 feet as the maximum altitude, however, we nominally flew between 72,000 and 85,000 feet. The aircraft was constantly being updated with new sensors. The J-58 engines had one major modification before I got into the program, and in the early 1 980s, the analog flight control system and associated computers were converted to an all digital system.

Csim: For many years the United States has fielded two main reconnaissance platforms in the U-2 and SR-7 1. However, it has been the U-2 that has been updated with the more "modern" avionic and camera systems thus itís continued existence. Could you explain why the U-2 was chosen to receive some of these updates and not the SR-71?

SR71 1997

Richard: The U-2 and SR-7 1 programs are funded under entirely separate budgets. The U-2 was seen as a cheap platform to provide reconnaissance. It also has a distinct advantage over the SR-7 1 in its ability to loiter for well over 10 hours at a time. If you want to gather intelligence over a continuous, long period of time, the U-2 can do that well. However, the U-2 is vulnerable to SAMs and MIGs. Therefore, the U-2 has to stand off from enemy territory and if threats are present, may require AWACS and F-15s for warning and protection. The SR-71 needs nothing for support. My book explains all of this in greater detail.

Csim: When the SR-71 was retired in 1990 Congress was notified that there was a new Blackbird replacement" being developed. Within the last few years in some parts of the United States and near the Western UK and Scotland, reports of engines noises thundering many times louder than the SR-7 1 have been heard along with various sightings of what some believe is a new "black" airplane. Could you discuss the issue of the rumored Aurora and talk about its existence if it does in fact exist at all?

Richard: If you believe what Ben Rich, President of Lockheed Skunk Works, wrote in his book, "Skunk Works," there never was an Aurora. I personally donít believe one exists either. However, I do think that some type of follow-on to the SR-71 was given serious consideration, but was never actually built. The famous picture that appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology, showing a contrail of what people believe to be a pulse-type engine, I have seen replicated many times. A normal jet aircraftís contrail, produced in a air mass with a strong jet stream and high altitude wind shear, can easily replicate what appears to be "donuts-on-rope". I have seen it numerous times and know precisely what is causing it... .thatís why I donít put much faith a new "pulse-type" engine being developed.

Csim: There is no question the SR-71 was sorely missed during Desert Storm. Could you discuss what impact the SR-71 could have made during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and what areas of the conflict the Blackbird would have impacted most?

Richard: The SR-71 is very good at "keeping the other guy honest." If they had been flying over Iraq early on, I am not sure Saddam would have ever invaded Kuwait at all. I do know that our Air Force fighter crews were flying combat missions with intelligence worse that what we had in Vietnam. Many crews were sent to strike targets a second and third time because of poor Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) from reconnaissance assets. The SR-7 lís highly sophisticated ASARS (radar) imagery sensor would have been perfect to find the elusive SCUD missiles that took so long to locate.

Csim: Many have speculated on the resolution of the cameras in our countries Recce birds. Given the advances made in satellite imagery, why does the United States still need the SR-71?

Richard: Satellites have to be moved in their orbits to image certain regions of the world. That process expends precious fuel onboard the satellite and thus requires high level authority in order to move one around. That makes them unresponsive to a theater commanders immediate need for good intelligence. Itís very predictable for a country to determine when a satellite is overhead and viewing their operations. The SR-71 can provide better imagery (photo or radar), day or night, in any weather, at any time. Their responsiveness is precisely what a theater commander wants. The SR-71s now have a near, real-time capability to downlink its radar imagery to a ground site located within several hundred miles of its flight path.

SR71 1994

Csim: The SR-71 was retired in 1990. However, in 1994 Congress issued $100 million in funding to allow 3 more Blackbirds to become operational. What were the reasons for bringing the legendary SR-71 back to service?

Richard: They were brought back because of existing gaps in our ability to gather intelligence on Third World rogue nations that may try hold the United States hostage to their threats. The current situation in Iraq is precisely why they were brought back. The United States should never find itself in a position where it is held hostage to threats to shoot down a reconnaissance aircraft.

Csim: Following your retirement in 1989 (after 25 years!) you began work on a book dedicated to the SR-71, itís stories, itís history and the pilots that flew the immortal plane. Could you describe your book and explain where we can purchase a copy?

Richard: I wrote the book, "SR-71 Revealed, The Inside Story," to try and tell the story about how we lived and flew the SR-71 on operational missions around the world. There was a period in the SR-7lís history (1974-present) that I wanted to document and tell the real story about its premature retirement in 1990. My web site provides a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of my book. If anyone would like a signed copy I would be happy to do so. Just send a check for $18.70 ($20.10 Texas resident) to Richard Graham, 3501 Hearst Castle Way, Plano, TX 75025-3702. This includes postage and mailing. Be sure to include a return address and who the book is for. The book can be purchased or ordered in most major book stores. My publishing company, Motorbooks International, also sell the book by calling them at 1-800-826-6600 and asking for my book by its title.

Csim: All the benefits from your book go to the J.T. Vida Memorial Fund set up with the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum to display SR-71 972. Could you explain how you became involved with this fund and how it benefits the SR-71 display?

Richard: When I started to write the book, I knew it would be impossible for me to receive royalty payments from a plane that served my Air Force career so well. I wanted to pay back all the years of having the privilege to fly the greatest plane ever built. I established the "J.T. Vida Memorial Fund" with the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., for the purpose of professionally displaying their SR-71 (972). All of the royalties from the sale of my book go to the Fund. Itís a tax deductible fund that anyone can contribute towards if they like, and help reduce their federal income tax if they itemize deductions. The Smithsonian is keeping accurate records of all who contribute to the Fund, and hopefully can be recognized along with the aircraftís display.

I dedicated my book to J.T. Vida. He was probably one of our most highly respected crew members who died of cancer in 1992. He was also the RSO who flew the record setting flight into Dulles in 1990 with aircraft 972. Because of his love for the Blackbirds, he flew it for 16 continuous years in the Air Force, knowingly passing up promotion to full Colonel. J.T. was also our high timer, with 1,392.7 hours in the SR-71.

If anyone would like to contribute to the J.T. Vida Memorial Fund, make your check payable to the National Air and Space Museum and send it to the following address. Be sure to indicate on your check "To the J.T. Vida Memorial Fund"

National Air and Space Museum
Smithsonian Institution
ATTN: Anne Seeger, Development Director
Independence Ave at Sixth St., SW.
Room 3729, MRC 321
Washington, D.C. 20560

Csim: It is a knows fact that the SR-71 stretches considerably when it reaches very high speeds due to excess heat. Could you comment on what special conditions are required to allow the SR-71 to push beyond Mach 3 and how much the plane actually stretches while itís in high speed cruise?

Richard: The only consideration I am aware of is that the SR-71 has expansion joints in all of wires, cables and tubing that runs the length of the aircraft to account for its inflight expansion. You will never find an authoritative answer anywhere about how much the aircraft stretches inflight at Mach 3 cruise, but Iíve been led to believe itís around three to six inches.

Csim: Is it true that while the SR-71 is being fueled on the ground it has to be refueled almost immediately when it reaches altitude by a tanker because it leaks fuel so bad due to the condition mentioned above?

Richard: No. The SR-71 does leak its JIP-7 fuel quite profusely while on the ground. Its proven over the years to be an impossible task to seal up all six fuel tanks because of the heating and cooling cycles the tanks experience inflight. This leaking has nothing to do with us refueling after takeoff The SR-71 takes off with a reduced fuel load to improve tire wear and reduced tire heating, and provides better takeoff performance in case of an engine failure. We generally used a 45,000, 55,000, or a 65,000 pound fuel load and refueled soon after takeoff to full tanks (80,000 pounds).

Csim: I have heard (on good authority) that no SR-71 has ever been knocked down in flight by any air defense. However, during the Vietnam War, North Vietnam fired countless volleys of SA-2ís at Blackbirds thundering overhead. Although none scored a direct hit, could you comment on whether or not a SR-71 ever took a "golden BB" hit from shrapnel while overflying North Vietnam or any other country?

Richard: You are correct that no SR-71 has ever been downed by enemy fire. I can not positively confirm that a "golden BB" has hit an SR-71, but I have heard the same story. Supposedly, an A- 12 in 1967 was found with a piece of debris in it from an SA-2 missile over Vietnam, after a volley of six SAMs were fired.

Csim: One of the main advantages of having the SR-71 at oneís disposal is getting sensitive recce information quickly. How long, on an average mission, to a regular SR-71 target, could a photo specialist expect to see the pictures taken from an SR-71 from the time it took off till they were in his hands?

Richard: The way you phrased the question, it would depend on the length of the missions. Weíve flown missions as short at 57 minutes, and a few over 12 hours, from takeoff to touchdown. From the time the SR-71 pulled into the hangar, photo interpreters were looking over its film within an hour.

Csim: Most military pilots spend a few years flying a specific jet and then generally move on to another aircraft. Specialty planes like the SR-71 are different. In your case, you were associated with the SR-71 program for about 15 years. Could you discuss how all the personnel associated with the Blackbird coped and reacted to the news of impending retirement of the SR-71 in the late 8 0ís? Richard: Those were sad days for all of us. We knew the Blackbirds were being retired for all the wrong reasons, and more importantly, knew it could do a job nothing else could do. All of our personnel were put through a lot of emotional stress during those years. The program seemed like it was on a yo-yo. . . cancelled one month and then back on the next. Rumors were running rampant, which made for difficulty planning.

Csim: For voting purposes, who were and still are the staunchest allies of the SR-7 1 program in Congress and the government? Who are the programs greatest nemesis?

Richard: Allies of the SR-71 program are senators, Byrd, Nunn, Stevens, Glenn, and more recently Newt Gingrich, who sent a letter to the President asking him to reconsider his October 14, 1997, line item veto of the SR-71 program. Foes of the SR-71 program are the Air Force and those agencies enamored with satellites and UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles).

Csim: Thank you for your time Mr. Graham. I, like many Americans, thank you for your time in service to our country and especially appreciate the efforts you are making to help put the SR-71 in a museum so this amazing aircraft can be appreciated by people from all over the world.


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Last Updated December 30th, 1997

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