Last updated: 8 Jan. 1997
THE BLACKBIRD TAKES TO THE SKY (April 1995 - March 1996)
In this section, I'll describe our flying activities, and various events worth mentioning. As with any program, the most dramatic note worthy events are usually the first flights and various flights involving problems and emergencies. While both aircraft flew very well for jets that have been down for over five years, there were several such occasions worth mentioning. It should be noted that all these occurred early on, and both aircraft have been flying great since!
As previously stated, each aircraft would require two FCFs. The first low and slow, and the second hot, to really shake it down. NASA aircrews would be the operators until our AF crews were again qualified in the flight simulator and the trainer aircraft. Most sorties would be refueled in-flight by KC-135 aircraft. Early on, we utilized the existing Tanker Task Force servicing the EAFB Flight Test Center. Once the Fairchild AFB tankers came on-line, they took over. During some missions, we would take-off with a heavy fuel load per mission requirements, and at times due to the lack of tanker support. All missions and routes were either put together by NASA, or by SR-71 experienced Mission Planners from the 9RW.
On April 26th, NASA's Ed Schneider and Marta Bohn-Meyer arrived for the launch of 971 scheduled for 9:30 in the morning. At crew brief, Ed and Marta went over the aircraft forms with the Crew Chief, and explained the FCF profile that would be used. They slid into the cockpits, and fired her up. Since the aircraft had been down for quite some time, and extensive maintenance had been performed, they carefully checked out all systems, and it seemed to take forever. The atmosphere was that of a media circus, as cameras were everywhere, and there must have been at least 100 spectators present. There were also over 500 people assembled just off the runway on Sierra Highway to watch the event that was probably strategically leaked by LM. Finally, 971 taxied towards the end of the runway. Final inspections were performed, and Ed took her onto the runway. After NASA's chase plane (F-18) arrived, 971 went airborne at 10:18, and returned again at 11:42. During this 1.4 hour sortie, the max. speed was only .96 mach and a max. altitude of 29,000 feet. This flight marked the first for the Reactivation and the 1,054th for aircraft 971. It flew quite well, and landed with just a few minor discrepancies. The first FCF was complete.
It would be nearly a month before we would attempt the second FCF. We used this down time to wash and paint the aircraft. The LM Corrosion folks did a great job, and the jet looked like a real SR-71 again! The second FCF was scheduled for May 23rd, and it went off without a hitch. NASA's Ed Schneider and Bob Meyer were the aircrew. It went airborne at 1:04 in the afternoon, and landed at 3:35. During this 2.5 hour sortie, Ed reached a speed of mach 3.23 and an altitude of 81,400 feet. The jet flew good, with several minor problems, and a tank 1 fuel quantity indicating problem. Two fuel probes were changed, and the problem was corrected. The second FCF was complete.
Ed would fly 971 four more times over the next six weeks, until the AF was ready to take over. During his next two flights, he had to abort the sorties for major problems. On June 2nd, his left engine flamed out (quit), and while able to get it restarted, he returned home. 15 minutes prior to landing, his left generator failed. The Digital Mission Recording System (DMRS) tapes showed that the engine temperature may have been trimmed too cool, and that no repairs were required. The generator and ADS were changed to solve the other problem. On June 26th, Ed again had to return early because the same generator had failed. If that wasn't enough, upon landing the right brake failed. Quickly approaching the end of the runway, he was forced to attempt a hard right turn to avoid going into the over-run. When he did this, the nose wheel steering dampner broke, and he finally came to a stop within the last few feet of the runway. We barely avoided a real disaster here, one which could have caused serious injuries, and surely would have delivered a defeating blow to the program. As a result, the brakes and steering were repaired, and the generator was again changed.
By mid June, our AF Pilots had completed their training in the flight simulator, and it was time finish re-qualifying through actual flying. This training would require five flights. The first two would be day time sorties in 956, being checked out by NASA IPs. The next sortie would be an AF solo flight in the A model. Then one night time training sortie with a NASA IP, followed by an AF solo night time sortie in the A model. All AF Pilots would qualify through the same process, and AF RSOs would occupy the back seat in the A model solo flights.
Lt. Col. Gil Luloff would be the first to fly. The first two attempts to fly 956 on the 21st and 23rd of June were canceled due to maintenance problems. Finally, on June 27th, Gil took to the skies with NASA's Rogers Smith as the IP. This was the first time an AF Pilot had flown the SR-71 in over 5 years. The aircraft flew for 3.1 hours and reached a speed of mach 3.23 and an altitude of 78,000 feet. Gil flew his second trainer sortie again with Rogers on July 14th. After three unsuccessful launch attempts due to maintenance problems, Gil flew his solo with RSO Lt. Col. Mike Finan in 971 on the 25th of July. This flight lasted 2.7 hours, at a speed of mach 3.23, and an altitude of 80,200 feet. This marked the first completely AF flight of the SR-71 since it was retired, and was not without trouble. When 971 arrived back in the area, Gil performed a few touch and go transitions. On one of these passes, he encountered a high Exhaust Gas Temperature (EGT) indication on the left engine, and was forced to shut it down in flight. He then performed an uneventful single engine landing. The problem turned out to be a faulty indicator, and the engine was fine. Gil flew 971 three more times for proficiency over the next three weeks. On August 23rd, Gil and Rogers flew the required night training sortie in 956. On the following day, Gil and Mike flew their solo night sortie in 971, and became the first of three aircrews to become Mission Ready (MR).
Lt. Col. Tom McCleary would be next. He flew the B model day sorties on July 28th and August 2nd with Rogers Smith, and again on August 11th with Ed Schneider. His solo day flight was in 971 with RSO Lt. Col. Blair Bozek on August 16th. He flew four more day sorties for proficiency, then on November 16th flew the training night sortie in 956 with Ed Schneider. Tom and Blair flew their solo night sortie in 971 on November 21st, and became the second MR crew.
Lt. Col. Don Watkins would be the last to qualify. He flew his day training sorties in 956 on November 22nd and December 11th with Ed Schneider. Don and RSO Lt. Col. Jim Greenwood performed their solo flight in 971 on December 12th. Jim became MR flying with one of the other Pilots later. Don would never fly the SR-71 again, as his application for retirement was approved.
On June 28th, 1995, Brigadier General Rutledge, the 9RW Commander, officially accepted aircraft 971 from Big Safari and LM. This was a very low keyed ceremony held in front of building 602 at Palmdale's Plant 10.
Ok, now on to the second aircraft, 967. Without a doubt, the best flying aircraft of the two. Early on, this was not the case. It took us nearly 5 months and 19 launch attempts to fly just 9 sorties, which is how many FCF flights it needed to pass the test. All 9 were flown by either NASA's Ed Schneider or Rogers Smith. I'll try to explain what happened. The 10 attempts that failed can all be attributed to maintenance problems which occurred both before and during the launches. The darn jet just kept breaking on us. The first flight was scheduled for the 18th of August, and finally made it off the ground on the 28th of August. The first 3 low and slow FCFs failed due primarily to a reoccurring fuel indicating problem, which will be discussed in depth later. Finally, on October 6th, the fourth low and slow FCF was launched and passed. The very first hot FCF took place on the 25th of October, but failed to make it back to Palmdale. During this flight, NASA's Ed Schneider found that fuel had become trapped in tank 6, and that he didn't have enough fuel to make it home. Thus, he diverted and successfully landed at Nellis AFB Nevada, our first and only land-away. What caused this problem will also be looked at in depth in a later section. Two days later, we launched the aircraft for a quick 20 minute flight home to facilitate repairs. The next two hot FCF attempts failed due to inlet problems. Finally, on the 12th of January, 1996, 967 passed the hot FCF test. Since then, with the exception of some datalink problems, it's flown exceptionally well.
The next significant event was the delivery of both aircraft to it's new home at Det 2 EAFB. 967 was delivered on January 30th, 1996, with 971 coming two days later. This was supposed to have occurred in October of 1995, but continual problems with hanger 1864 made that impossible.
Aircraft 967 was also the first of the two to be fitted with the new datalink system. The antenna itself extends below C bay, which is the forward part of the nose landing gear wheel well, and is housed in a dome-like structure. The system is generally a bit old, but is designed to transmit the radar imagery to a ground processing station. LM had to design, manufacture, and test the radome. The first datalink test flight occurred on February 15th, 1996, and reacted quite well to the ground station. Later flights revealed problems with data transfers, and when I left the program, they were still trying to hash that out.
No SR-71 story would be complete without sonic boom complaints. There are three new ones that I'm aware of. First, one of our earlier flight routes took us over Northern California, and right over BAFB (coincidence I'm sure). On one such flight, the Governor of California (Pete Wilson) received numerous complaints and the usual damage reports. The 9RW Commander was notified, and he had to promise that it would never happen again. So, no more booming our friends in the 9RW. Another complaint came in from a small town near the Arizona / California border. Supposedly, our booms had caused an elderly man to have a heart attack. I never really heard the outcome of that one. An lastly, native Americans in southern Arizona accused our booms of causing rocks to fall off some of their ancient burial grounds. One request did come in to boom Reno on purpose. It was supposed to occur during the 1995 Blackbird Reunion, but NASA's Ed Schneider experienced an engine flame-out in 971, and had to return early to Palmdale.
© Christopher W. Bennett
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