Last updated: 8 Jan. 1997
Everyone that's been around in the military has various stories that have stuck in their memory. Here's a few I encountered during my tenure as the SR-71 Maintenance Superintendent;
The Vegas Trip: As I mentioned earlier, 967 diverted to Nellis AFB Nevada due to trapped fuel in tank 6. That evening, we organized equipment and personnel that would depart the following morning for recovery operations. All personnel departed at around 4:30 a.m., and began to arrive around 8:00 a.m. The trucks transporting our equipment was expected in around noon. Our inspection of the aircraft did reveal fuel inside tank 6, which ruled out an indication problem. We discussed the problem with the Pilot Ed Schneider, and all agreed to simply put fuel on board and send her back to Palmdale to facilitate the repairs. Further inspection of the aircraft revealed a bad #4 main tire. Since we were going to attempt a launch later that day, NASA agreed to fly in the tire and equipment needed for repairs on their King-Air. Two hours later, it arrived, and the maintenance was quickly performed. In the mean time, we started acquiring all necessary ground support equipment from the Nellis Transient Alert section. They were great, and provided us with everything we needed. Our equipment showed up at about 1:00 p.m., and we started launch preparations. We did not bring a TEB cart with us, as Ed had only used a few shots on both engines. The JP-7 fuel truck had to be trucked in atop a flat-bed truck, and got held up at a truck inspection stop. Seemed it was a few thousand pounds over weight. Some fast talking got that cleared up, and it finally arrived around 3:00 p.m. We serviced the aircraft, and prepared it for a 5:00 p.m. low and slow 25 minute flight back to Palmdale.
Before a crowd of hundreds, Ed started the left engine. We were unable to get the right engine to start, and it looked like we might be out of TEB. We tried and emergency start of the engine by depressing the TEB dump switch. It worked, but scared everyone half to death! It took about two minutes for the fire to go out in the exhaust, and I watched in amazement as the Nellis Fire Department personnel hopped back in their truck and left the area. They had been briefed on what to expect, and guess they still didn't like it. Then, Ed developed a problem. The right EGT indicator went flat. We swapped the left and right indicators and it worked fine, so this obviously told us it was only and indication problem. Well, we didn't bring a spare one with us, so Ed shut her down, and we were done for the day. We had to resign ourselves to the fact that we would have to spend that evening on the Vegas strip, which did prove profitable to some. The next day, we received the new EGT indicator, along with a TEB servicing cart. We launched 967 around noon. Although there was a large exercise going on, with hundreds of fighter aircraft on the ramp, the SR-71 was still able to turn everyone's head that day! She may be old, but she still packs em in! I think I gave over twenty tours during our visit, and was a bit embarrassed, as 967 hadn't been washed in over five years.
967 Gets an Unexpected Free Wash Job: One day, the LM Fire Department paid us a visit at building 602. They wanted to test the deluge (fire extinguishing) system in the hanger. They assured us that all valves had been positioned in such a manner that would prevent any water from escaping into the hanger. We agreed, and you guessed it, 967 got washed by really old stale smelling water. Quick thinking mechanics closed the canopies, and prevented damage to electrical equipment. The water did enter the open wing fuel tanks. After all was cleaned up, it looked like we'd avoided any problems. Then about a week later, we discovered fuel sealant starting to crack and blister in the wing tanks. Needless to say, this caused us a great deal of extra work.
NASA, Where's Our Stuff? When NASA took control of all SR-71 parts in the Barstow warehouses, a listing was given to them by the AF. This was a list of all parts and equipment that would need to be given back to the AF in the event the aircraft was ever reactivated. It was enough to support the same three aircraft they had instructed Lockheed to store. When we went out looking for equipment, some short-falls were encountered. I'll use the example of hydraulic test stands, and cut to the chase. The list said we should have five of these, but could only find one. NASA had the four that they were supposed to have, but said they didn't have a clue where the others might be. After a few months of arguments, and I believe threats from the AF, the problem was resolved. It seems that NASA was using these in some of their other programs, and was reluctant to give them back. Finally they gave in, and we received them. It was interesting that they arrived without hoses, but we didn't have time to argue that point, and Pat Murphy soon acquired new ones for us. Other such issues arose, and we would go through the same process of procurement. I truly believe that NASA got very paranoid at times, and hid many things from us. I think early on, they were very much afraid we would rape and pillage their operation to the point of closure. I also believe, that there were those in the AF that wanted just that.
Explosives Anyone? Anyone who's been around explosives know the importance of securing them properly. On ejection seats, there are explosives called pyrotechnics. These devices are used to initiate the different processes required for a successful ejection of the aircrew member from the aircraft. These are located in the cockpit and on the seat, and are always safetied when the aircraft is on the ground. When the ejection seat is removed, it must be stored and locked in a approved secure room. During a routine visit to supply in hanger 1864, we wandered into an adjacent room, and discovered an ejection seat laying on a table. This room was not authorized for explosives, nor was it locked. What we saw next was the shocker. There was a hand written sign taped to the ejection seat that said "Caution, do not touch, explosives". We then turned around and saw the seat catapult "leaning" against the wall, also with a sign. It's sign said "Caution, do not touch, live rocket". When explosives are properly secured, no signs are required. LM quickly took care of this problem.
Who Can Promote the SR-71 Program? As stated before, the AF did not want this program back. From the start, everyone was told to keep it very low profile, and that it wasn't career minded to discuss is it. During the ceremony when 971 was transferred from AFMC to ACC, the 9RW Commander was the highest official present. Even then, when the news media questioned him, he had to refrain from promoting the program, and just stated we were bringing her back because of the Congressional mandates. He was not permitted to speculate nor endorse the program. I think the only AF office that tried to promote the program was Big Safari, but their hands were also tied to some extent. LM's Justin Murphy was the key lobbyist for the program, and apparently has done an outstanding job! This was just another example to show you the political climate present in this program. LM is the key promoter of an AF program. Quite interesting, don't you think?
Who's More Important? Early on, we acquired several GSA vehicles to support the program. These vehicles are just commercial cars, trucks and vans, that the AF buys and rents out for use. LM maintenance was given four vans, one truck, and two sedans to support all 70 people. Terry and I were given a pick-up truck, and our six Pilots were given four sedans. LM allowed our Pilots to swap one of their sedans for one of the maintenance vans. The reason given was so the Pilots could have more room for visitors and tours during launches. I can't fault the Pilots because they got a great deal. It's just another example of how LM management treats their own.
Let's Hurry Up at Any Risk! FCFs are accomplished on aircraft after extensive maintenance has been performed. Itís purpose is to thoroughly check out the aircraft and systems to ensure it is capable of returning to operational service. In other words, there are some unknowns involved that require verification before a regular mission can be attempted. Only a small percentage of the most experienced Pilots in the AF are qualified to perform these flights. In my twenty years of experience in aircraft maintenance, sensors and expensive additional equipment are never installed on aircraft in this status. To do so, places the equipment in jeopardy should something go drastically wrong with the aircraft. Such possibilities include: a crash destroying the aircraft and equipment, electrical system failures burning up equipment, or landing gear problems causing damage to aircraft and equipment. Basically, in the AF, it's just not done. But that's exactly what LM did! Behind schedule, they were in a hurry to perform sensor integration tests on 967, which had not yet been released from FCF status. I strongly objected to this, and the 9RW agreed. However, since 967 still belonged to AFMC at this point, my decision was shot down by Big Safari. The good news is nothing bad happened. The bad news is the safety limits LM is willing to push to stay on schedule. If you have any doubt how dangerous an FCF can be, just talk to anyone in the 9RW, who recently experienced the loss of a U-2 aircraft and Pilot from an FCF flight.
Where Are Their Priorities? During early inspections of hanger 1864 at EAFB, floor plans were designed and work spaces were allocated. Since Terry and I were involved in contractor oversight, we selected a second floor room on the front corner of the building, which had a great view of the outside work areas. When Col G came on board, he decided that that room would be better suited as the SR-71 heritage room. That's a traditional place where all past SR-71 memorabilia would be hung, and a lounge / bar placed. Every Det has had one, and Det 2 should be no different. I completely agree with that! We reluctantly gave in, and figured we'd occupy the room next door, which still had a view of the launch area. Nope, that was going to be the Pilot's gym. To make a long story short, we got placed on the first floor with no windows. All other AF personnel are upstairs with a view. That was still very doable, as we were usually out and about anyway. But it did just reconfirm my perceptions of what was really important to the boss.
© Christopher W. Bennett
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