Last updated: 16 Jan. 1997
PRE-REACTIVATION EFFORTS (October - December 1994)
This three month period was generally packed full of preparation meetings, and interactions between the key players. I was then the U-2 Production Superintendent at BAFB, and volunteered for and was accepted as the SR-71 Maintenance Superintendent. I selected Technical Sergeant (TSgt) Terrence Melanson to be the Quality Assurance Evaluator (QAE). Terry, once my Assistant Crew Chief on SR-71 962, is one of the most knowledgeable individuals I've encountered in the program. He and I were then loaned to Big Safari, and would spend the next eighteen months in Temporary Duty (TDY) status in support of the Reactivation. Although we still belonged to the 9RW, Big Safari's Captain Mike Zimmerman "Z" (the AF SR-71 Program Manager) became our boss. Our function was to be the AF representatives for contractor oversight, and to inform Z of all possible problems and solutions. Z was awesome, as he not only listened to our inputs and suggestions, but acted on them as well. Z quickly absorbed a wealth of SR-71 knowledge, and is the primary reason for the programs success.
Big Safari also employed a wealth of experience to aid the effort. Among these were two very skilled retired AF Colonels and previous SR-71 aircrew members: Don Emmons (once Commander of Det 6) and Barry MacKean (a prior Det 4 Commander) both kept everyone on the right track. Larry Gross and TSgt Eric Romanov (from Big Safari's Det 4) were also brought in for logistical support and added contractor oversight.
Justin Murphy (prior SR-71 crew member) became the LM's SR-71 Program Manager. He started to put together a managerial team which included: Pat Murphy, John Deegan, Pete Perez, Waymon Roy, and Floyd Jones. Pat Murphy (too many credentials to list here) became the Chief of Logistics. That man can do anything, especially when it comes to "acquiring" equipment and parts. He selected Mike Allen as his right hand, and together, they are the ones who really made the Reactivation a success! John Deegan and Pete Perez were the lead Engineers with a wealth of prior knowledge. John would later retire, and then be re-hired as a consultant. His replacement would be Kent Burns. Waymon Roy (an SR-71 Flight Test Supervisor for many years) became the Maintenance Manager, and was charged with the maintenance game plan, and the hiring of personnel. Floyd Jones (retired AF and Flight Test SR-71 Supervisor) was named as the head of Quality Assurance (QA).
The first major issue discussed was not how to do it, but where. I'll cut through all the months of arguments, and go right to the outcomes. The Reactivation maintenance would be performed at Plant 10 at Palmdale California in building 602. This was the old L-1011 hanger, and adequately housed three aircraft, supply, and equipment. All servicing, engine runs, fuel tests, and launch and recovery operations would be conducted at Site 2 across the runway, inside the AF Plant 42 area. This is the previous home of the Blackbird, and currently used by the U-2. After the Reactivation, the aircraft would be transferred to it's new home (Det 2) in hanger 1864 at EAFB. Edwards was chosen due to joint AF and NASA needs. NASA already operated the SR-71B trainer aircraft, and had a functioning flight simulator in place. Both were to co-utilize these resources, as to not hamper either operations.
What aircraft would we use? When the program closed in 1990, Lockheed was instructed to store three SR-71As. To make a long story short, the AF never funded the proper storage of these aircraft, so Lockheed simply parked them on the ramp, and forgot them. These aircraft were 962, 967, and 968. NASA was also to give one of their A models back to the AF. They chose 971, as 980 had been greatly modified for their operations. To our advantage, all four aircraft had recently completed the major 800 hour depot level inspection before they were stored. This meant we had a lot of flying hours left on them, and all had the most recent upgrades accomplished. Terry and I performed general inspections on all four, and found 971 in the best shape, as NASA had periodically performed engine runs. The other three had been sandblasted by the wind, but other than that were in good condition. The dry climate of the desert was a blessing. We all knew that the condition of the fuel sealant would determine which two we would select. NASA was given $50,000 to prepare 971 for a gear down one time flight to Palmdale, where fuel leak evaluations would be performed on all. The outcome of these tests and selections will be covered in the next section.
Now, how to do it. LM's proposals were easily compiled. They had brought SR-71s out of storage in the past, and besides the large amounts of sand in the aircraft, this would be no different. First, fuel leak evaluations would be performed, and the two best candidates selected. Then 200 hour Hourly Postflight (HPO) inspections would be performed, which is similar to the phased inspections we performed at BAFB. All out dated parts would be changed, and the aircraft times would be zeroed out so that 800 hours would remain until the next major inspection. Some aircraft systems would also be updated, to include the IFF and some defensive systems. Our goal was to have the first aircraft in the air within four months of starting, with the second one following two months later. The primary goal was to comply with the intent of the Congressional mandates, which was to have two fully mission capable aircraft completely flight tested with two mission ready AF crews by September 30th of 1995.
How were we to flight test these aircraft? AF aircrews were not to arrive until April of 1995, and would take several months to become re-qualified through the flight simulator and the trainer aircraft. Experienced NASA Pilots Ed Schneider and Rogers Smith would fly our Functional Check Flights (FCF), and continue to fly the aircraft until our Pilots were ready to take over. They would also perform the duty of Instructor Pilot (IP) in the B model for the re-qualification of the AF Pilots. The back-seaters would be NASA's Flight Test Engineers Bob Meyer and Marta Bohn-Meyer. Each aircraft would require a minimum of two FCFs. The first would be a low and slow (below 65,000 feet and mach 2.6) FCF before attempting the hot (above 65,000 feet and mach 2.6) FCF. Sensor checkout could not begin until the AF Reconnaissance System Operators (RSO)were in place, as NASA was not qualified nor cleared to operate these systems.
The selection of AF aircrews was next to come. There were many experienced crew members still on active duty. The Pilots selected were Lieutenant Colonels (Lt. Col.) Gil Luloff, Tom McCleary, and Don Watkins. Gil with the most experience would become the Det 2 Commander and first to be qualified. The RSO's selected were Lt. Col's Mike Finan, Blair Bozek, and Jim Greenwood. They would each report to BAFB to start training sometime in February of 1995, then on to EAFB a few months later. It should be mentioned that Colonel Stan Gudmundson (Col G), a previous SR-71 RSO, would step in as the non-flying Det Commander around September of 1995.
When the program closed, all resources from Beale, the Dets, and Flight Test were sent to Barstow California for storage. There were two warehouses utilized, both very old, and about 200 by 500 feet in size. These buildings are located on the USMC Logistics Base there. NASA's Jerry Kiever and one assistant were the total work force. Inventory lists were questionable, and much still had to be logged in as received. There was no procedure in place to repair parts, as this "candy store" was all NASA had to depend on. They had enough assets in place to last them a possible 25 years. When a part went bad, they simply replaced it, and sent the bad one to Barstow to sit on a shelf. One can't blame NASA in the least for this procedure. Who would have thought the SR-71 would make a come back? But this opened up a bucket of worms for us. Did we have enough spares to last, and for how long? Plans were made to perform a complete inventory, and the assistance of BAFB Supply personnel was suggested. Most of the equipment we needed was in place, but LM would need to refurbish the majority of it. Many parts have a shelf life, and these would have to be verified and updated in many cases. We acquired their inventory lists, and identified many shortfalls that LMís Pat Murphy would soon have to deal with.
Our greatest problem was in the area of fuel tank sealant. Since the aircraft had been sitting for over five years, we all expected to find many fuel leaks. During Depot level maintenance, 25-40 tubes of high temperature sealant were usually required to repair the tanks. We only had 9 left in the inventory. 3M was contacted, and said it would take them over two months to re-supply us, at a mere cost of $1,000,000. This was given the highest priority, and was the single most factor that could effect the Reactivation. All who have ever been around the SR-71 know it to be a severe leaker, due to the airframe construction and high temperatures of mach 3 flight. There is simply no way around it. The environmental laws of today had us very concerned, and knew it could impact the program dramatically.
We also probed NASA personnel, to find out what equipment and parts problems they had been experiencing. Their major problem was with the "hot gigs". These are hydraulic test stands, that heat the fluid to above 500 degrees to burn all oxygen from within the aircraft hydraulic systems. This is critical to mach 3 flight, as temperatures get extreme, and any oxygen present could be disastrous. NASA had continually attempted to repair theirs will little success, and actually flew their aircraft in that condition. We weren't about to attempt that with AF crews! The corporate knowledge in this area again was at BAFB, and plans were made to bring their mechanics out to attempt repairs of the existing five hot gigs.
JP-7 fuel is needed to power the Pratt and Whitney J-58 engines of the SR-71. This fuel was still being produced for NASA's operation, but much more would be required once we were flying. MSgt Dave Alexander from 12AF stepped right in, and was able to plan for the increase, and also for allocations to overseas locations to accommodate future deployed operations.
Sensor location was also started. Most were back at the original vendors, and Z was instrumental in acquiring them back for our use. The defensive systems, however, needed to be upgraded for current threats. Plans were made with the Air Warfare Center (AWC) to provide this support. MSgt Mike Hull from BAFB and MSgt Bill Whittle from Eglin AFB Florida were instrumental in identifying the shortages of airframe related defensive subsystems, and worked closely with the AWC to locate these items. Both had prior SR-71 experience, and became an integral part of the team effort, spending a lot of time assisting in the maintenance of these systems.
The Astro Navigational Systems (ANS) were in great shape and maintained by NASA. This system is similar to what the Space Shuttle uses, and navigates the aircraft by focusing on stars, day or night. The almanac of stars was out dated, and it was determined that a new one could be accomplished at minimal cost.
The SR-71 flight simulator was used by NASA aircrews at EAFB. The back seat section needed to be modified to accommodate the sensor and defensive system upgrades. Cynthia Hernandez (working for the EAFB Logistics Group), who used to be an Item Manager for the SR-71 program, stepped in an provided assistance to get this accomplished. She has also been of great help, when dealing with many other agencies on the base.
Of course, most SR-71 operations require in-flight refueling form tanker aircraft. It was determined that the KC-135 aircraft would be the primary source, and plans were under way to obtain access to the Fairchild AFB fleet in Washington state.
Ok, it's now around Christmas of 1994. At this point, I'm still doubting wheather it's really going to happen? We've gotten off to a great start, but there's still one problem. The money hasn't started flowing yet. All expenses for these trips, planning meetings, and preparations to this point have been absorbed primarily by Big Safari, the 9RW, and LM. This should give you a good idea of who really wants to bring the SR-71 back on line, and folks, it hasn't changed a bit.
© Christopher W. Bennett
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